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Rough-legged Hawks Irrupting

Posted on Feb 1, 2015

This is a companion blog entry to the Winter Bird Forecast by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. Be sure to watch for our fifth forecast, coming soon! Wherever you are across the Northeast you have likely seen or read a report about a Rough-legged Hawk nearby this winter. This beautiful raptor, available in both a light and dark color morph, has irrupted across a broad swath of the upper parts of the Lower 48. The wintering specialty is at home in open and coastal areas such as marshes, grasslands, airports – hey, a lot of the same places the Snowy Owl is seen! Here is an individual I photographed during heavy lake effect snow last winter at the Chautauqua County/Jamestown Airport in Jamestown, New York.

Rough-legged Hawk-1150577

I took a look at the eBird map of Rough-legged Hawk sightings for only the month of January 2015. Even though I knew a good number has descended into our area I was nevertheless surprised at how many filled the map. This is as far as I could zoom out before the points turned into shaded cells because there have been so many checklists with the species.

Rough-legged Hawks eBird January 31 2015

They are definitely more concentrated around water and coastal areas, but there are also more people and eBirders in these areas. For what it’s worth I feel like this is a relatively uniform distribution meaning that if you have any good available habitat near you there is a good chance a bird has been or will be there. Here is a frequency graph for Rough-legged Hawk sightings, defined as the percentage of all eBird checklists within the period reporting the species, for Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Rough-legged Hawks frequency January 2015

If averaged out with a trend line it would appear to be increasing slightly. Between 0.4% and 2.4% of all checklists submitted to eBird in January had a Rough-legged Hawk on them – for a mostly solitary irruptive species, that is a solid total. Below is the abundance for the same five states, the average number of the birds seen on all checklists. Because it is a bird often seen one or two at a time at most it is a low number.

Rough-legged Hawks abundance January 2015

The fact they are a solo species is seen in how closely the graphs match with similar peaks and valleys, both hitting their highs on January 25 and sinking to the lowest point on January 4. In short it seems that a lot of birders found a Rough-legged Hawk last Sunday and that they are still becoming more common at this point. If you have not spotted one yet you have a good chance as we head into February. Remember that your best bet is to check places like open grasslands, airports, farm fields, and extensive coastal marshes and shorelines. If you are interested in more winter birding check out our Winter Bird Forecasts with Audubon Connecticut here on our website and at WXedge.com. Good birding!

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator