Birding Thursday: Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
Hands down, one of my favorite hawks. Ok, I’m a bigger fan of falcons like the Merlin and American Kestrel, but that will be for another Birding Thursday. So for now, the Marsh Hawk, or Hen Harrier! Gray Ghost!? This bird has so many different names!
Working in Southern and Central California means I have had the chance to see more than a few of these beauties in their natural environment and let me tell you, they are graceful and swift hunters.
As adults, these birds can grow up to a foot long with a wing span from 3.5 to 4.5 feet wide and weigh a slight 12-18 ounces. The male and female adults look very different from each other, unlike most other hawks. The male has a gray back and hood with a white belly while the female is mostly mottled brown colors all over her body. They both have the distinguishing white rump and owl-like facial disk on their face, which aids in hunting.
(Male Northern Harrier; Source)
This bird can be found in several different habitats including grasslands, wetlands, meadows, croplands, tundra and riparian woodlands. You would most likely see them flying low to the ground, slow and elegantly, as they hunt for prey by sound, much like their raptor counterparts the owl. They are looking mostly for rodents as they hunt, but also small birds, reptiles, and insects, but have been known to catch larger prey like rabbits and squirrels.
As far as reproduction goes, the Northern Harrier is a ground nester. Made primarily of grass and twigs they make nests in dense ground cover areas and might lay 3-6 eggs, depending on how strong the rodent population is that year. The young hatch after about 30 days of incubation but don’t leave the nest for another 4-6 months as their parents teach them everything they need to know.
We are lucky in that their numbers haven’t dropped too much over the years but their habitats are severely threatened by urban sprawl and dare I say, alternative energy like solar plants. Looks like these guys will have their work cut out for them if we don’t keep our grasslands and open fields well, open, in the future!
I also wanted to show you an amazing drawing a friend of mine did of the Northern Harrier. Head over to his blog if you would like to see some more sketches and great photos of birds from his field work this year!