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A Bird in Hand

The Northern Harrier

April, a time for getting the garden squared away for planting, the boat out for fishing, and the bicycles pulled from the garage for pedaling. And if you are truly sophisticated, you will have already spent many hours in the field bird watching. Well, at least the back yard. But this month’s bird might not be accessible from the back deck. You may just have to head for an open field, the more vast the better. This is probably the only way you are going to capture the Northern Harrier in your binoculars

The Northern Harrier? What is the world is a Northern Harrier? Well, I’m glad you asked. The short answer is that it is a raptor. The long answer is... well, it gets a little complicated. If you’ve got the time, let me explain. You’ll be glad you asked.

First off, in case you were unaware of the fact, raptors are the birds of prey. Species like hawks, eagles, falcons, etc. Winged predators with sharp beaks and big, scary claws, that are the stuff of nightmares for song birds, ducks, and other prey species. Raptors are at the top of the feathered food chain. And counted among them is the Northern Harrier. This is the big bad guy that rodents keep an eye out for.

In the right area, these are commonly seen birds. And that right area consists of open fields or scrubby areas that contain rodents: field mice, voles, gophers—that sort of thing, though an opportune bird or rabbit will not be passed up. Like most predators, Northern Harriers are opportunists. But unlike the larger hawks circling high in the sky, Harriers generally keep near to the ground, cruising at a fairly low speed. They accomplish this feat with a distinctive dihedral in their wings. That is, a definitive V-shape to their wings, unlike the flat plane of a hawk. This dihedral is similar to the Turkey Vulture (though less steep) and accomplishes the same effect—an ability to soar at a relatively slow rate of speed without stalling. 

Harriers have three distinctive features that one must keep in mind when identifying these birds. First, the males and females have distinctively different coloration, which is rare in raptors. Second, a white rump patch. And third, the birds have an almost owl-like face, though this might only be obvious on the perched bird.

Male and female Harriers do not share the same color scheme. The much larger female will be predominantly brown or a dark, dirty gray on top, with a light colored breast and belly. Note that the breast may or may not be speckled, sometimes heavily. But the open wings will have a classy checkered pattern underneath. If she fans her tail, you’ll be able to see the same pattern on the tail, though it might appear as stripes.

The male is completely different. Instead of brown, he will be a beautiful steely gray on top. Underneath, and most striking, is the almost pure white breast, belly, and under-wing coloration, with or without a wee bit of speckling. But the black tips on the primaries and trailing edges of the wings are a give-away. These markings are gorgeous and help you to pick the Harrier out in a crowd. You will not confuse it with any other bird.   

Nonetheless, the most essential field mark for this bird will be a white rump patch. This is the definitive Northern Harrier field mark and is unique to this specie. The rump is the area where the tail meets the back of the bird (on top, not underneath). If the bird you are watching has a definitive white patch in this area, it is a Northern Harrier.

If you are fortunate to see a perched bird, look for the owl-like facial “discs.” These features help the bird to locate its prey by sound. So the Northern Harrier can not only hunt by seeing its prey, but by hearing it as well! 

When you are out birding and stumble upon a raptor in flight, don’t forget the Northern Harrier. It is sort of like a slim, medium-sized hawk. Unique, but waiting in a field near you.

Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, Northern Harrier, harrier

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