Buteo lagopus sanctijohannis

Status:  Fairly common regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Fairly common regular winter visitor statewide.

Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM7688, 19 Nov 1920 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  There are four subspecies generally recognized, lagopus in northern Eurasia, menzbieri of northeast Asia, kamtschatkensis of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and sanctijohannis of North America. Nebraska birds are sanctijohannis.

There are two color morphs in North American birds, dark and light, although females exhibit an intermediate morph; Wheeler (2003) noted “All ages and sexes exhibit extraordinary variation within each morph”. Identification of age class and color morph can be confusing both within and between this species and others. However, in western Great Plains wintering populations, only 5-7% are dark morphs (Wheeler 2003).

Spring:  winter <<<>>> Apr 24, 25, 25

Later dates are 29 Apr 2021 Valentine NWR, Cherry Co, 4 May 2013 Morrill Co, 7 May 2010 Garden Co, and 20 May 2018 Sioux Co.

Most movement is in Mar-Apr, although movement is gradual and young birds may linger into May. Later reports (see Comments) are undocumented, although presumed non-breeders have a propensity to linger into Jun as far south as Idaho and Wyoming (Palmer 1988), and northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin (Kent and Dinsmore 1996).

  • High counts:  28 around Niobrara, Knox Co 17 Mar 2013, 12 in Banner and Kimball Cos 24 Mar 2008 and 8 in Knox Co 1 Mar 2010.

Fall:  Oct 10, 11, 11 <<<>>> winter

Earlier dates are 17 Sep 2017 Logan Co, 18 Sep 1983 Wayne Co, 29 Sep 2003 Lincoln Co, and 30 Sep 1999 Douglas Co.

In poor prey years, Rough-legged Hawks may leave the breeding range as early as Aug (see Summer), but most depart the breeding range Sep-Oct (Palmer 1988). Hitchcock Nature Center Hawk Watch data show arrival in mid-Oct.

  • High counts: 26 in Scotts Bluff and Sioux Cos 12 Nov 2000, 10 in the Keith Co area 28 Nov 1974, and 10 in Sioux and Box Butte Cos 22 Oct 2000.

Winter: Wintering birds occur statewide, usually in open areas and on extensive grasslands. Presence is somewhat irregular, ranging from common to absent from year to year (Rosche 1982).

  • High counts: 53 in the Panhandle 10 Feb 2001, 37 in north-central Nebraska 28 Dec 2013, 37 between York and Ogallala 1 Jan 2014, and 35 between Neligh, Boone Co and North Platte, Lincoln Co 27 Dec 1996.

Comments: There are about 40 reports in the period 21 May-13 Sep distributed statewide. Many are likely misidentifications of the highly variable immature Swainson’s Hawk (Tony Leukering, pers. comm.), or of immature Ferruginous Hawk. There are no recent (1998-2017) Nebraska reports for late May-early Sep, and none on eBird for all years for Jun-Aug (accessed Jan 2021).  Nevertheless, as discussed under Spring above, sub-adults may linger well into Jun in northern Great Plains states and in poor prey years individuals may depart the breeding range as early as Aug (Wheeler 2003). Thus a (presumably small) number of these summer birds may indeed be sub-adult or even (in fall) adult Rough-legged Hawks, especially in Jun and late Aug-early Sep. Kent and Dinsmore (1996) cited a “possible” summer record 13 Jun 1982 in Pocahontas Co, Iowa. A bird identified as a juvenile female Rough-legged Hawk was found injured near Sutherland Reservoir, Lincoln Co 6 Aug 2004; it was taken to a recovery center but died 10 Aug. It tested negative for West Nile Virus and its remains were cremated, but no photograph was taken and so its identity remains questionable.


UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited:

Kent, T.H., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1996. Birds in Iowa. Publshed by the authors, Iowa City and Ames, Iowa, USA.

Palmer, R.S., ed. 1988. Handbook of North American birds. Vol. 4. Diurnal Raptors (Part 1). Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Wheeler, B.K. 2003. Raptors of Western North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021.  Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 2 Jun 2021