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Natural World: From Marsh Hawks to Northern Harriers 

A head-on look at a female Northern Harrier zooming by.
  • A head-on look at a female Northern Harrier zooming by.

There was a time in the long-long-ago of "bird-watching" when today's Northern Harrier was known as the Marsh Hawk, because the low-flying, small bird- and mammal-eating raptor could almost always be seen in western marshes, flitting along just a few inches above the foliage, always looking down and rarely where it was going.

Those were the days when people who enjoyed watching birds were called just that: "bird watchers." However, in certain circles of society that name came with some kind of a snigger, at times. But then, sometime in the '80s birding came out of the dark ages. I think people who sold cameras and binocs, birding clothing, books and other equipment sort of gave their customers a new lease on life and elevated their status to that of "birder," spoken with a bit more high class.

At about the same time the scientific world of bird-namers took on the title, "Marsh Hawk," with sort of the same attitude as "bird watching"—perhaps because zoologists began to see Marsh Hawks in a lot of other places than just marshes. Because this lovely raptor skimmed over the surface going about its business of persistent attacks on other animals, they seemed to think "harrier" was a better name (he who harasses others). So today we have "birders" watching, documenting, photographing and enjoying Northern Harriers.

And all of this meant absolutely nothing to the comings and goings of the hawk. It's been eating voles and other small mammals, lizards, snakes, small birds and no doubt insects of all kinds all along.The best moment my family and I had with a harrier "harriering" was one day when we were birding in the Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area in Lake County and came upon one standing on the surface of the water.

"What in the heck's going on?" I said, just having caught sight of the creature standing on the water as we were driving by it. I stopped, backed up and immediately, the whole family was looking out the windows of our old three-door Suburban as I said, "Boy! There's a Harrier with a lot of faith, it's walking on water."

Wildlife making a living alongside roadways in wildlife refuges are used to motor vehicles with humans in them driving by, and tend to go on with life in a normal fashion—but when one of them stops, it gets their attention. The Harrier looked up at the carful of people staring at it and probably thought, "Who me...? I'm not doing anything."

But when I aimed my camera at it it got to be too much, and it did what most birds do in a similar situation, it flew off. When it did, a Coot, a small water bird, popped to the surface.

Sure enough, the Harrier had been standing on top of the coot, more than likely trying to drown it. That meant that in addition to the aforementioned prey items that Harriers enjoy dining on, we could then add Coots.

Then there was the time when my wife Sue was out birding on a lovely spring day with a bunch of kids at the edge of the Great Meadow at Sunriver and accidentally discovered a harrier nest. This is not a ho-hum, "gee-isn't-that-nice" sort of incident; it's a "Look out! Duck, or you'll get your head knocked off" sort of thing.

A very unhappy female Northern Harrier suddenly dropped out of the sky, and with her talons out came swooping over Sue's head, cacking at her, "You leave my babies alone!" Most of the time humans get the message pretty quick that they're somewhere they shouldn't be and leave.

click to enlarge natworld-b-2e4154a35861aa70.jpg

Most people, that is. Sue, on the other hand, had to see who was dive bombing her and why. Sure enough, there was the reason right in front of her feet: three tiny week-old harriers in a grass nest, and with them three fresh caught voles waiting to be fed to the ever-hungry babies.

As raptors go, harriers are unique. First off, adult males and females have a dramatically different plumage. The adult male is mostly gray with black wing tips and white underneath, and, when seen side-by-side, is noticeably smaller than his partner.

While both hunt in the same manner, skimming over grasses and shrubs, looking down and rarely where they're going, the female is a dark brown with a very distinct white rump patch.

When attacking prey they both do a very quick wing-over maneuver and dive head-long into the ground. But like the Osprey that do the same as they go after a fish, both hawks swing their feet in front of their faces at the last second so that their talons are right in front of their eyes.

Like the accipiters, the only time you will see a Harrier soaring like a red-tailed hawk of an eagle is when it's going somewhere else, not hunting. Oh, yes, Harriers also have an owl-like face, which resembles that of a look-alike owl, the Short-eared Owl.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this little glimpse into the life-and-times of our Northern Harrier, and a suggestion: When you spot this hawk zig-zagging over the grass and shrubs of their habitat, don't just check it off your bird list as seen. Instead, stop and watch as it skits along the top of the grass and shrubs. You may be rewarded with the opportunity to witness a Harrier as it takes its plunge into the vegetation and bounces back up with a vole in its talons. It's quite an air show.


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