Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus
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General Comments North Carolina lies at and just south of the regular wintering range of the Rough-legged Hawk, meaning that there are generally one to several winter reports annually. Unfortunately, except for one or perhaps two birds that have recently wintered at Alligator River NWR, the species is seldom seen in the same area for more than a few days. As identification of the species is a bit tricky, some published reports almost certainly relate to misidentified Red-tailed Hawks, especially where birds are seen perched along roadsides (and not seen in flight). Rough-legs are birds of very open country -- extensive fields and pastures, and rarely marshes, though birds do perch in scattered trees, as well as on fence posts and even telephone wires. (From eastern Virginia northward, the species winters at extensive tidal marshes, but in North Carolina the birds are seldom seen over such marshes.) The species has several color phases, though dark morph birds are in the minority in the state.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter visitor. Rare in the Tidewater area, mainly at Alligator River NWR; very rare to rare along the northern coast, south to central Carteret; casual farther south near the coast. Every few years, one may remain at Alligator River refuge all winter. Farther inland, very rare in the northern portion, and casual to accidental south of Wayne and Lenoir. Primarily late Oct to mid-Mar. Peak counts: 2 at several sites.
Piedmont Winter visitor, with at least 31 reports. Very rare, with a concentration of records in the Raleigh/Durham/Jordan Lake area (because of better coverage?), but scattered records over most of the province. Mainly early Dec to mid-Mar, with a few reports as early as Oct. Peak counts: all single birds.
Mountains Winter visitor, with at least 18 reports. Very rare in the extreme northern counties (such as Alleghany and Ashe); casual over the remainder of the province. Mainly early Dec to late Mar. There are 2-3 old published reports (prior to 1935) in Aug and Sep, which seem to be most odd, and likely would not be accepted today. Peak count: 2, Pond Mountain Game Land (Ashe), 15 Nov 2017. A report of 2 birds, at Blowing Rock, 14 Aug 1935 seems outlandish, though the two observers were experienced and well known.
Finding Tips Since about 2000, one to occasionally two birds have been seen at the extensive farm fields at Alligator River NWR. Thus, your best bet is to set up a scope and carefully look over the Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers for a Rough-leg. Away from this site, try scanning the extensive fields near Pungo and Phelps lakes, though this is a long shot.
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Attribution LeGrand[2023-03-21], LeGrand[2022-09-14], LeGrand[2021-03-06]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.