Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dark morph Rough-legged Hawks & more about the bog

No matter how many times I visit Sax-Zim Bog, I get the rush that I felt the first time I ever visited the bog, back during the owl irruption of 2004-2005. I remember taking a drive with two of my college friends, carpooling of course, during my first long-distance birdwatching trip. I was just giddy with excitement. At the time, I had never seen a wild owl, and was filled with the curiosity of wanting to experience the sights and sounds of this bog. At that point in my life, I was unaware of the fascinating behaviors of the food-caching Gray Jays, the bark-peeling of Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, the the concept of how much of a rare treat it is to see Boreal Chickadees, especially anywhere in the lower 48. Pine Grosbeaks... I had seen pictures of these chunky finches in field guides, but I did not know that they roam the skies and tree tops of the bog, in tight-knit flocks.

We arrived at the gas station just outside of the bog at the "Cotton" intersection a little before the sun came up, to get some snacks for the upcoming day of birdwatching that awaited just a few miles west. Shortly after entering the bog, we headed north on Hwy 7. What was this raptor to the right... sitting on a fence post? It made me think of a perched Red-tailed Hawk that had been dipped in dark-chocolate, from head to tail. I noticed the bird had a slightly longer-looking tail than a Red-tailed Hawk, and a more boxy-appearance down to the feet. Red-tailed Hawks can look poofy and fluffy, but this raptor had a sense of being relaxed and fluffy all at once! My friends Becca and Andrew told me that this bird is a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. Wow, my very first Rough-legged Hawk! And what is a dark morph, I wondered at the time... Dark morph is a term given for raptors that have an overdose of melanin, or brown/gray/black coloration throughout their feathers, where typically paler sections of feathers occur. If you hear the term melanistic (too much melanin), it can sometimes refer to birds that are unusually dark for their species. I love gulls and gull watching, and will later share photos of a melanistic Ring-billed Gull I photographed this past fall. Anywho, back to the bog...

We must have watched that Rough-legged Hawk for over 20 minutes. It was a natural moment of bliss. The arctic-dwelling fluffball, as I like to call the Rough-legged Hawk was at ease. It slowly looked left, looked right, then quickly snapped its head back to the right; this time remaining focused on the snow. The intent stare of raptors is powerful. They hyperfocus, and remain focused on their prey as if life and death could be just around the corner... because it is. Birds of prey hunt for survival, and on average make a successful hunt once every seven attempts. I don't remember if this Rough-legged Hawk was successful, but I do remember the actions, the beauty of this bird seen through snow-globe snowflakes falling that day, and remember a special connection with this raptor. That day as a whole was incredibly memorable, as we saw over a dozen Great Gray Owls, several Northern Hawk Owls, Black-billed Magpies, and songbirds of every kind to be expected within the heart of a Boreal Bog.

The photos throughout this blog entry are of Rough-legged Hawks (and the habitat scene on top, from Sax-Zim Bog). The paler-looking Rough-legged Hawk is a light-morph. Like all Rough-legged Hawks, they have a dark carpal patch (black spot in the "wrist" or mid-section of the wing). This is something to look for when you're trying to identify them in flight.As stated earlier, Rough-legged Hawks can also exist in a dark-morph form. Rough-legged Hawks are one of the few raptors that you can actually tell the gender, mainly by the amount of speckling on the frontside of the bird, as well as the band thickness/number of bands on the tail.

Rough-legged Hawks come from the arctic regions of northern Canada, and come down "here" to the northern regions of the lower 48 to spend their winter months. Their ability to cope with the cold conditions during winter, as well as their amazing beauty is really something else :) Only a few more months until these pretty arctic fluffballs head back to the Arctic. Time to enjoy them while they are here!

Good birdwatching,


  1. Nice post, Erik. I've added a link to your blog on my side bar.

  2. Thanks Lynne. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Great blog, Erik. Really nice pics, too. I'll be looking forward to reading about your adventures around Duluth and checking out the places and birds myself.

  4. Thanks, and awesome, Tony :) Let me know what you're seeing!