The Northern Harrier

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WHOOSH! This is how we usually see Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) hawks  at Clark County Wetlands Park – in flight, with their distinctive white rump patches flashing in the sun! They fly low over open ground – often so low that they have to fly up and over to avoid ground objects like fences. Their wings are held in a characteristic “V” pattern as they soar between wing beats.

Harriers have unusually large ear openings and owl-like facial disks of specialized feathers that help collect sound. They watch and listen for prey, including small mammals, large insects, reptiles, and other birds as they patiently quarter back and forth over the ground.

Their flight pattern when on the hunt has been described as “lazy,” but when prey is located, the action begins. The bird may hover briefly over its prey before dropping straight down like an arrow or making a rapid “corkscrew” dive to capture the meal.

Courtship flights for male Harriers involve an athletic series of up to 25 roller-coaster-like, U-shaped dives in quick succession. Impressive!

Feeding the family is also an athletic endeavor. Female Harriers incubate the eggs and guard and care for the young birds, but the male is in charge of feeding everybody! When he brings food to the nest area, he calls to his mate. She flies up from their nest on the ground, and he drops the food to her. She turns upside down to catch it in midair and flies back down to the nest.

Northern Harriers are Wetlands Park residents, so watch for them overhead, but not too high overhead, in all seasons of the year!

Please enjoy this YouTube video:

– Chris Leavitt, Friends President; photo courtesy of Philip Martini

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