Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Northern Harrier (aka Marsh Hawk)

photo by scotclose on Flickr
I took my teenage daughter on a quick drag hike at Cooper Mountain Nature Park last weekend. Despite the cold, she was willing to humor me...but only so much.

When I enthusiastically pointed out a bird hovering over a meadow, her response was a noncommittal "Huh" (which I considered a step-up from the anticipated "Meh.")

Thwarted by her lack of interest, I'll share with you instead what I thought was so interesting about this Northern harrier. These birds are known to hover over their prey, but due to a fierce oncoming wind, this one was absolutely motionless, just hanging in the sky, as if it had been painted there.

A Northern harrier is one of those birds that can be recognized almost more by what it's doing than how it looks. Other hawks that hunt in grasslands and meadows are apt to swoop or stoop (dive) to the kill. But a harrier rarely flies higher than 7 feet above the ground; its wings are held in a slight V, its head is down.

There's a good reason for this technique: harriers listen for squeaks and rustles. Unlike others in their sharp-eyed hawk family, they rely more on their hearing than vision to locate prey. A "facial disk" (like that of owls) helps--the feathers around the harrier's eyes and beak create a concave surface, something like that of a satellite dish, which directs sound into the harrier's ears.

What do you think? Doesn't that deserve more than a huh or a meh?


  1. Wow, this is amazing! thanks. Wish I'd been at Cooper Mountain with you,.

  2. Certainly deserves more.   I bet she really dug it but she's just too cool to show it.  Great shot - I've yet to see one of these.

  3. Absolutely, at least a ah ha!

  4. I saw one out between Sherwood and Newberg a week ago.  That hover is awesome!  A few years ago we were at the Air Show in Hillsboro.  The announcer was describing the British jet with vertical take-off, landing, and hovering capabilities.  He finished with, "... and now, - - - the British Harrier!"    At our end of the field, a Kestrel suddenly burst out of the grass beside the airstrip and hovered there a moment before flying away.  Poor thing was probably deafened by the jets.

  5. I am one with you.
    Who would have thought it true?
    Connect us with clouds and sea,
    and certainly a flower and bee.
    Now, that's a thought to chew!

    Ruth Reno

  6. Next time take a friend who's more appreciative.  Actually given her age I think you were lucky she went with you.

  7. This is my first time connecting with this blog.  I was responding to the Monday quote with a limerick.  I am not sure I sent it to the correct place. :}
    As far as the Harrier piece and stunning photograph I am enthralled!  I love nature photography, and your descriptions are captivating, Pat.  I wish I had been with you and your daughter.  I watch my "lonely bird" a Great Blue Heron on a murky greenish pond near our house and try to capture it's presence on camera.  Tips from you would be appreciated.
    We have the red  tailed hawk screeching and swooping over our hillside. I will check my bird book to see if Harriers are near me.

  8. Hi Ruth! Nice to see you here! I didn't take the photo--I go to places like flicker where people post photos and allow others to use them (see the attribution below the photo?). So alas, I'm unable to give you any photography tips.

    Hooray for the limerick! Tomorrow morning I'll be posting the Weekend Limericks and Haiku page. I'm happy to have them whenever, tho!

  9. She may have been too cold to show it...

  10. Keep her exposure to nature going.  She'll be grateful eventually.

  11. You can take me!  I love getting out in nature! I would have been inawe of the harrier!

  12. I don't think I've ever seen this.  Now, I've got to trek out and take a gander.  Our son enjoyed hiking, but he was always about 2 miles in front of me (what can I say...I'm older and shorter).  When I'd catch up I'd say...did you see the bear tracks?  No.  How about the to the side?  No.  I bet you made a side trip and bellied out on that cliff top to see the waterfall.   There was a waterfall?

    I learned for the younger legged it was all about getting from point a to point b.

    Meh! to them.

  13. The northern harriers were quite common over the salt marsh and low hills by the San Francisco Bay, where I was a naturalist at the Palo Alto Baylands. We could often spot the white patch of feathers that you can see behind the wings in the photo--another clue to identify them. As spring approached, we'd start to see the grayer males, down from the hills in the coast range. The females keep them out of their prime feeding areas except for mating and caretaking season. (Bless the male: He helps.) I saw the spectacular courtship display only once. The Birder's Handbook describes it this way: "Courting male performs series of dives from near stall, incl barrel rolls in U-shaped loops." The old Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, Part I, waxes eloquent at length about the drama. The female flies low, still listening for mice and seemingly not paying attention as he zooms down to 10 feet or so above the ground. But sometimes she joins in the display. What a treat to watch!