One of the UK’s less familiar birds of prey, the rough-legged buzzard or rough-legged hawk, spends its breeding season in Arctic and Subarctic reasons. They move south to escape harsh winters with just a few wintering in the UK. It can be distinguished from the common buzzard by its heavily feathered legs and longer wings.
Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
Status: Winter visitor
Wintering birds: 10-150 birds
UK passage: 10-150 birds
Conservation status: Scarce visitor
Length: 50 – 63 cm
Wingspan: 120 – 150 cm
Weight: M 600 – 1370 g F 780 – 1600 g
In light morph, adult male rough-legged buzzards have brown upperparts, which are darker towards the rump, upperwings which vary from dark brown to almost black. The flight feathers are barred.
The breast and belly are heavily marked and their white tails have several narrow dark bands between the base and the subterminal band. Their uppertail coverts are white barred with black.
Rough-legged buzzards have paler heads with a buffy-white forehead and lores. The crown, cheeks, ear coverts, and nape have a cinnamon coloured wash and are streaked with dark brown, and they have grey eyebrows.
Their bills are black with a yellow-green or orange cere and gape. They have hazel or dark brown eyes, brown feathered legs, and yellow feet with black claws.
Female rough-legged buzzards are similar but is more heavily marked on the belly than the breast, and they have fewer bands on the tail. She is slightly larger than the male.
Juveniles have paler heads, a darker belly, buff underparts, and pale grey eyes
In dark morph rough-legged buzzards have almost black plumage. Their crown and neck are usually streaked with white and they have dark grey secondaries on the wings. Their tail is dark brown with a white terminal band.
Juveniles have more mottled plumage and their eyes are brown or pale grey.
Rough-legged buzzards breed from April to early July. The male selects the nest site sheltered by overhanding rock, and collects sticks and twigs which are used by the female to build the nest. It is lined with grass, hair, and feathers.
Rough-legged buzzards lay 1-7 but usually 3-5 creamy-coloured eggs with brown markings which are incubated by the female for 28-31 days. The male feeds her during the incubation period.
Chicks are fed by both adults and fledge 34-45 days after hatching. They are independent 3-5 weeks later.
Rough-legged buzzards prey on small mammals such as rabbits, mice, hares, and voles. They will also eat small birds, fish, large insects, and small carrion. On their breeding grounds they will take lemmings.
Where to see them
Rough-legged buzzards can be seen in the UK between October and April, mainly on the east coast and the northern islands of Shetland and Orkney. Look out for them on coastal marshes and farmland.
Stein Ø. Nilsen/xeno-canto
Did you know?
The scientific name for the rough-legged buzzard means hare-foot buzzard. Butteo is the Latin name of the common buzzard, while lagopus is derived from the Ancient Greek for “hare” (lago) and “foot” (pous), reflecting its choice of prey.