Northern Harrier

This is the first of an occasional look at the birds of prey that can be seen here in Ohio.  I’m starting with a species that has recently made a seasonal appearance.

The beginning of cold weather brings a change in bird populations.  Some birds that we saw in the warm weather have headed south, making way for cold weather species heading down from further north.  One new arrival is a hawk that, unlike the ones you see soaring high up in the sky, flies low over marshes and fields searching for its food.  This is a very agile flier.  It’ll be around Ohio prairies until the weather warms up again next year.

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This is a Northern Harrier.  An older name for this species is Marsh Hawk (check for the name in older bird field guides if you have one).  These birds hang around prairie areas, so it’s a bit harder to see them unless you’re in the right terrain.  But they’re easy to spot- just look for the hawks that are flying low and slow.  This is one bird that’s as easy to identify by it’s hunting habits as by its looks.

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The above photo points out another characteristic of these birds- a white rump above the tail feathers.  This is a diagnostic field mark, as we birders say.  A hawk with a white rump?  That’s a Harrier!

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Northern Harriers spend their summers in Canada and the northern US, but when the weather grows cold they head south to avoid the Arctic snow cover.

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They constantly scan the ground, looking for something furry to eat.  They can make rapid changes in flight if they spot something.  They are very acrobatic.

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Occasionally they land in a clump of vegetation or low perch, alert for a meal.  These raptors are up close and personal types.

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If you get a close look at their faces, they look almost owl-like.  The reason for this is that, like owls, they find their prey not only through sight, but through hearing.  Their dish-shaped face aids in collecting minute sounds beneath them in the grass.  I’ve seen them dive right to the ground, their wings held above them as they catch and eat their prey.

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Females and immature birds are darker-colored.  Males are a striking white and gray.  They almost look like a different species.

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Males will sometimes have more than one mate- they provide food for all of their offspring, which certainly keeps them busy.

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Earlier this week, on a foggy morn, I encountered several northern Harriers flying together over the Darby Wetlands.  Others flew towards the group and joined them from a distance away.  Perhaps this is courtship, or perhaps it’s just a social gathering.  It looked celebratory to me, a happy return for another season in their winter hunting grounds.

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The Darby Wetlands seems to attract more of these birds every year, thanks to the Metro Park’s prairie and wetlands restoration projects.  A rich variety of wildlife are attracted to this place.  I appreciate it as much as the birds do.

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Northern Harriers are something to look forward to in the cold season.  There is a time and place for everything in nature, and each season brings something wonderful.