“Over the next three hours, the two dark morph birds frequently hunted together over the same area, and were clearly freely associating with each together. They looked a bit like Mutt and Jeff, and when the tiny male hovered, his wings beats were noticeably faster than his larger companion.
“They were joined by a huge immature female light morph bird and showed no competitiveness. At times, one or two Northern Harriers were up with, or hovering just below, the roughlegs, who almost always flew higher than the harriers.
“An unusual brown morph bird then joined the party. The juvenile brown (Wheeler) or intermediate (Clark) roughleg is particularly striking. I cannot recall seeing this plumage in Massachusetts more than once or twice before at most. The overall coloring is lighter brown, not black, with a mottled head and distinctive dark carpal patches set off in lighter brown-mottled wing linings. (True dark morph birds show a consistent color on the wing linings and carpal patches.)
“This bird has been around for at least three weeks. Depending on the angle of view and the light, it can appear almost light, or virtually dark. This individual is also intermediate in size between the local female and male dark morphs. These birds moved up the town marker field, down the dunes, and up over the fields, again and again for almost three hours (at which point I left). They likely continued to hunt there, with, at times, four birds hovering within less than 50 yards of each other. At no time did I see any of the raptors successfully find and take prey. They were hunting, but really seemed more to be having fun, hanging and hovering into stiff SW winds with 40-plus degree temperatures in good sunshine.
“I heard two reports of a juvenile Bald Eagle moving up the island just before I saw the the roughlegs. Both observers said the eagle, flying north, had raised every goose and black duck around the salt pannes. I was hiking south from Hellcat at the time (road closed to cars) so I did not see the eagle. However when I did discover the roughlegs within half an hour, I was shocked to see one of the dark morph roughlegs pass along the northern Hellcat dike and flush a bunch of ducks, suggesting they were already on edge, no doubt from the recently passed eagle. The Roughleg day I have been hoping for for years.”
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.