Birds of Chignik Lake: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

To the extent possible in this project, I’m using images captured in the study area around Chignik Lake. However, since luck conspired against me getting a usable photo of a Rough-legged Hawk in The Chigniks, I’m using photographs of Rough-leggeds I took in Mongolia. There is essentially no difference from continent to continent in the overall appearance of this circumpolar species. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

This is the hawk of the north, the only species of Buteo to breed in Arctic regions. Around the village of Chignik Lake, we’ve seen both the typical light-colored form as well as an example of the dark morph – an almost uniformly chocolate brown bird when observed roosting, and in flight showing a much darker overall wing, belly and tail band. On lighter birds, when in flight look for almost light-colored wings accented with a dark fringe, dark wingtips and a distinctively dark patch at the carpal joint (wing wrist).

Although this cruising Rough-legged has a flock of Wheatears in a panic, this species has a decided preference for mice, voles and other small rodents. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

A bulky shape, light, round head, heavily feathered legs and small talons are good field markers when identifying perched Rough-leggeds. In flight, look for a dark wrist patch on the underwing, dark flanks and belly, dark wingtips, and a dark tail band. These are reported to be the most nocturnal of hawk species, thus the crepuscular hours of morning and evening are a good time to watch for them. In flight, soft wing feathers make them nearly as silent as owls.

Stocky, broad wings, small talons, heavily feathered legs, dark patches at the wrist (wing bend)… Rough-legged! (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

It may not look like much more than a jumble of sticks, but for a number of years this nest on a bluff overlooking Chignik River was home to a pair of Rough-legged Hawks. Unfortunately, winter winds in the valley whose very name means “Big Winds” took the nest down. But in the spring of 2019 – our final spring in The Chigniks -, we saw a pair of Rough-leggeds near their old nesting site. Hopefully they’ll return. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

Ermine, lynx, foxes, owls, shrikes and hawks – predators move into an area for a time, do a number on whatever prey species brought them there in the first place, and then they move on. David Narver’s report of Rough-legged Hawks being “common” in the Chignik Valley likely coincided with an abundance of lemmings, voles or possibly ground squirrels and successive successful nesting seasons. We noted these prey species as relatively uncommon to rare during our three years at The Lake, as was the case with Rough-legged Hawks.

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Buteo: from Latin for hawk (or in Europe, buzzard)
lagopus: from Ancient Greek lago = hare; and pous = foot, referent to the heavily feathered legs of this species. Note that Lagopus is the genus name for ptarmigan, which also have heavily feathered legs and feet.  

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Uncommon in Spring, Summer & Fall; Absent in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Claws and a Tomial Tooth

Next Article: Bald Eagle

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.