It’s time to keep an eye out for Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) which are currently migrating south from their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra to spend the winter in northern states. They look for habitat similar to the open habitat they left – agricultural fields, meadows, and airports fit the bill well. In Vermont, the Champlain Valley is a known winter destination. You see them on the ground, perched on fence posts, telephone poles and tree tops, as well as hovering in the air as they forage for small rodents below.
As to their common name, the “rough-legged” refers to the feathers that grow down their legs to the base of their toes, a clever adaptation for the cold climates they inhabit. Rough-legged Hawks come in two color morphs, light and dark. North America is the only place where the dark morph is found, and it is more common in the East than the light morph. The dark belly of the light morph Rough-legged Hawk pictured indicates that it is a female.
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