Back to Blog

Close Encounters With Arctic Rough-legs

  • Sun 24th Oct, 2021

On the 13th July 2008 I was lost in the Boreal Forest of Russia. I was supposed to be surveying breeding birds but the mosquitoes had got the better of me so I went off-piste and climbed a hill to catch the breeze. At the top of the hill, I realised I had lost my way so I stopped for a break and looked out over the vast landscape. It was a truly awesome sight.

Boreal Forest view from my hillside in Russia 13 July 2008. © Richard BainesBoreal Forest view from my hillside in Russia 13 July 2008. © Richard Baines

Arctic forest covered the whole 360° view, stretching as far as I could see. Small lakes amongst the trees were the only change in form. I remember thinking this is what real wilderness looks like. I was totally captivated by the experience.

Pine Grosbeak (male) Russia July 2008 © Richard BainesPine Grosbeak (male) Russia July 2008 © Richard Baines

The sweet song of Pine Grosbeaks caught my ear. A male and female; two shining jewels were sat on a nearby rock. I sat down to watch the Grosbeaks and a male Bluethroat without another care in the world.

Bluethroat in the Boreal Forest of Russia July 2008 © Richard BainesBluethroat in the Boreal Forest of Russia July 2008 © Richard Baines

I was tiny and insignificant in this wild place but I felt a hugely powerful sense of calm.

Rough-legged Buzzard in attack mode! Russia July 2008 © Richard BainesRough-legged Buzzard in attack mode! Russia July 2008 © Richard Baines

Suddenly the Grosbeaks flew up, disturbed by a calling raptor circling above me. An angry Rough-legged Buzzard twisted and turned above the hill and nearby trees. I must have been close to its nest. I laid back on the rock and watched it through my binoculars. As it drifted away over the forest, I noticed a thin line of smoke rising above the trees, a lifeline to follow for my journey back to our camp. I had never been so close to a Rough-leg before and what an amazing place to experience it!

Rough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard BainesRough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard Baines

My next close encounter was of a very different kind. Leading one of our Yorkshire Coast Nature Birding Day trips on the 1st November 2014, I took our group to see a Rough-leg which was hanging around a grass verge in Grindale on the outskirts of Bridlington! The presence of voles, mice and roadkill kept this bird going for many weeks attracting lots of admiring birders. I wrote the following notes in my journal a day later;

Our lunch stop was cut short by news that the Rough-legged Buzzard party had started! Within a short time, our group was being treated to possibly one of the best raptor shows this side of Jurassic Park! This amazing bird hovered fearlessly above the hedges and roadside verges, at one point plunging down onto a vole right in front of one lucky photographer! It’s no exaggeration to say that in more than 30 years’ birding I have never had such close views of a wild bird of prey.

Rough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard BainesRough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard Baines

Rough-legged Buzzards occur every winter in the UK with small numbers seen in Yorkshire each year. The Grindale bird arrived in typical fashion on the coast having travelled across the North Sea. It was first seen coming in off the sea over the cliffs of Filey Brigg by my good friend and YCN guide Mark Pearson.

Rough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard BainesRough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard Baines

Annual winter abundance of Rough-legs in our country depends on irruptions from Northern Europe where they are affected by prey availability in late autumn. When they reach us, they can be found hunting open ground anywhere from the moorland of the North York Moors National Park to flat farmland in East Yorkshire.

Rough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard BainesRough-legged Buzzard - Grindale © Nov 2014 Richard Baines

Look out for their distinctive black and white tail and underwing and a dark breast. Check out any buzzard sized bird of prey hovering like a Kestrel. Common Buzzards hover occasionally but nowhere near as much as a Rough-leg. It feels like a long time since we have had a Rough-leg winter. I will be keeping a keen eye out in the hope this winter is the next one!

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature