Northern Harrier: Raider of the Grassland

August 21, 2016  •  4 Comments

Over a period of six weeks this summer, I visited an 1800 acre reclaimed strip-mine in Clarion County, Pennsylvania to observe and photograph nesting Northern Harriers.  During that time, I witnessed the adult harriers adding nesting materials to their nest, performing fantastic mid-air food exchanges, delivering food to their chicks, hunting, preening, and finally teaching their young fledglings to get their own food.  It was an eye-opening and educational six weeks and I'd like to share my experience with you.  

Sharing what I've learned and photographed can't be done in a few photos.  This photo blog is a little longer than I like them to be so I hope you find the Northern Harrier as fascinating reading this blog, as I did documenting them through my lens.

As I begin writing this blog, I'm wondering how many of you ever saw a Northern Harrier.  They are not seen as often as other hawks, such as a Red-tailed, Broad-winged, or Cooper's.  I'd like to give you a brief description right now with many more interesting facts scattered throughout this photo blog.

The Northern Harrier, also known as Hen Harrier or Marsh Hawk in other parts of the world, is a slender, medium-sized hawk with long, broad wings and a long, rounded tail. They have a flat, owl-like face and a small, sharply hooked bill.  They are the most owl-like of hawks but they are not related to owls.  In addition to vision, they rely on hearing to capture prey so their stiff facial feathers are important because they help to direct sound to the ears.  Incidentally, there are 13 species of harriers worldwide but the Northern Harrier is the only harrier in North America.

Males (below left) are gray on top and whitish below with a dark trailing edge to the wing, and a black-banded tail.  Adult females (below right) are brown and have whitish undersides with brown streaks.  The harrier's overall body length is 18.1 – 19.7 inches with a wingspan of 40.2 – 46.5 inches.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

Northern Harriers breed in wide-open habitats where they build the nest on the ground or on a mound of dirt or vegetation.  Nests are made of sticks and are lined inside with grass and leaves.  Large tracts of land, like reclaimed strip-mines, are some of the best grassland birding habitats in the state. Grassland birds are abundant breeders in large grasslands and various species of birds can be located there during all seasons.  During the breeding season Northern Harriers eat small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds making these wide open places an attractive habitat to raise a family.

The photo below gives you an idea of how challenging it can be to photograph raptors in the large grassland habitat.  Distance can be a problem.

Clarion County, PennsylvaniaClarion County, PennsylvaniaReclaimed strip-mine grasslands

 

I began photographing these Northern Harriers in late June.  Early on, I made a lot of photos of the male, referred to as "Gray Ghost".  In addition to his gray coloring with white underside, his black wing tips are a good way to identify the flying Gray Ghost.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

Northern Harriers fly low over the ground when hunting, circling over fields and marshes as they watch and listen for small animals.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

They eat on the ground, and they perch on low posts or trees.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

Only the female Northern Harrier incubates eggs.  During that time and until the chicks are about two weeks old, the male does all the hunting.  He provides nearly all of the food for her and the chicks.  Instead of bringing the food directly to the nest, the male flies overhead, sometimes announcing his presence, and the female flies up to meet him.  In mid-air, they do a food transfer.  As the male flies high in the sky, the female flies underneath him and catches the dropped food.  It was captivating to watch and I was happy to photograph a couple food transfers.

First, the male flies overhead with his catch.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

In the left photo, you can see the male carrying a rodent and the female approaching from the bottom with outstretched legs.  The center photo shows the rodent being dropped to the female.  The right photo shows the talented catch in mid-air.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female food transfer

Photo 1
Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female food transfer

Photo 2
Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female food transfer

Photo 3

Most of the time, after catching the food, she briefly landed somewhere to eat some herself.  Also, she made several landings in various spots as if she is trying to fool predators by not immediately giving away the location of her nest.  Another observation of mine was when the female brought food to the nest, it was usually clean of fur or feathers.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

It is obvious that she treasures the food her mate caught for her.  Look at the way she holds it close to her body as if to hide it.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

Eventually, she dropped into the nest.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

Nearly every time she took food to her chicks, she flew off to a nearby swamp and filled her beak with soft grasses...

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale bringing nesting material to nest

 

and brought it back to the nest.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale bringing nesting material to nest

 

There were some really long periods of time that nothing was happening.  However, in the final hour before sunset, you could count on a few food deliveries before it was time to sleep.  It was on these special occasions that the male would actually bring food all the way to the nest site. 

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

And the female delivered food too.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

When a person spends so much time watching for birds in the sky, one really needs to take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the land.  The hilltop grasslands provided the most spectacular sunsets.

Clarion County, PennsylvaniaClarion County, PennsylvaniaReclaimed strip-mine grasslands

 

I made several trips to Clarion County with mixed results.  My hope was to catch something unique.  Occasionally, Turkey Vultures would circle above and the harriers didn't like that.  One day I saw the female perched in a tree about 500 yards away from the nest when a Turkey Vulture got close to the nest.  The female harrier charged the vulture, wings beating furiously, and forced the vulture in another direction.

Below is a photo of the Gray Ghost giving chase to a vulture.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale chasing Turkey Vulture

 

Sometimes, after a food drop, the male would fly along the road to a sign post that I think it's safe to say is his favorite.  He spent a lot of time there.  Here is a short clip of the male sitting on that post.  Click the icon in the center to play the video.

Northern Harrier

 

Are you wondering what may be the real reason they call the male harrier "Gray Ghost"?  Besides the obvious gray coloring that I mentioned earlier, there is another story that describes the male harrier.  There was a Confederate army cavalry battalion commander named John Singleton Mosby who fought in the American Civil War.  His command, the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia, known as Mosby's Rangers or Mosby's Raiders, was a military unit noted for its lightning quick raids and its ability to elude Union Army pursuers and disappear, blending in with local farmers and townsmen.  John became known as "The Gray Ghost".  I can make that connection to the male Northern Harrier.  Although my eyes were focused on the skies watching for one of these big birds to come toward the nest area, sometimes the male harrier would swiftly appear out of nowhere.

Speaking of our Gray Ghost, did you know that harriers are the only hawk-like birds to practice polygyny?  They are known to take care of four or five mates at one time although most have one or two.  So when I didn't see the male for a couple hours, I assumed he was taking care of other mates.  The wait would get rather long at times and when you least expect it, he came flying by with food like this unfortunate American Goldfinch.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

Sometimes the female was seen gliding around as if she expected him.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

As a photographer, I needed to be alert when food came because their speed of food transfer was incredible.  Harriers can reach speeds up to 38 mph when chasing prey.  When the male came with food, I think the female came close to that mark on her approach.  Once she reached the male, he dropped the rodent where she could catch it and she would eventually take it to the nest.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female mid-air food transfer

Photo 1
Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female mid-air food transfer

Photo 2
Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale/Female mid-air food transfer

Photo 3

As I said before, she flew around a lot with the prey before returning to the nest.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

And once again, she left the nest for a few minutes only to return with nesting material.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale with nest material
The hot, muggy day caused fog to form in the valley which was glowing under the setting sun. Clarion County, PennsylvaniaClarion County, PennsylvaniaReclaimed strip-mine grasslands

 

When I began photographing these birds in June I preferred going in the morning.  The early hours meant good light and several food transfers.  As summer and its high heat arrived, the morning light became harsh much earlier in the day, casting shadows on the underside of the birds.  As a response, I began to visit in the evening more often.   The chicks were getting bigger and were beginning to wander on foot away from the nest.  I wanted to be ready to capture their first flight and I believed the evening light enhanced that opportunity.

We had a few storms go through one evening when my wife Elena and I were making the hour long drive into Clarion County.  When we arrived, we were greeted by a beautiful rainbow. 

Clarion County, PennsylvaniaClarion County, PennsylvaniaReclaimed strip-mine grasslands

 

It was awesome that we could see both ends so I drove to the top of the hill to get another perspective.

Clarion County, PennsylvaniaClarion County, PennsylvaniaReclaimed strip-mine grasslands

 

The rain was gone but a lot of cloud cover and distant thunder remained.  This was the day when we got to see the juvenile harriers for the first time.  This is the third and last juvenile remaining in the nest.  The other two have been making their way up the hill either walking or jumping short flights with sounds of mom's coaxing in the background.  It was time to expand their territory.  Notice the white downy feathers that still remained on its head. 

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

The Northern Harrier lays 4 - 6 eggs but rarely more.  As I mentioned earlier, the female solely incubates the eggs.  That process lasts 30 - 32 days.  Once the chicks hatch, the female remains with the young most of the time.  Once again, the male does the hunting for both the female and the chicks.  After the chicks are about 2 weeks old, the female does some of the hunting for them.  Since they nest on the ground, they can easily stray from the nest.  After about a week the chicks are able to walk and they may move short distances away from nest but return to the nest to be fed.  They are able to fly at about 30 - 35 days.

This next photograph shows mom bringing food to the nest where her young one is waiting, wings spread, in the grass.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale & Juvenile

 

When the female leaves the nest she takes off with such a burst of speed that I missed the photo most of the time.  On this occasion, I was ready.  These two photos are a short series of her leaving the nest after dropping off the food pictured above.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

The sunlight was fading fast when I noticed the female perched on a low shrub at the top of the hill.  The puffy, cumulus clouds provided a nice backdrop.

Northern HarrierNorthern Harrier

 

Suddenly, there was movement at the nest.  The last nestling began to climb up the taller, stiffer weeds surrounding the nest.  Now I got a really good look at it.  There is a way to distinguish if a juvenile is male or female.  Juvenile males have pale greenish-yellow eyes, while juvenile females have dark chocolate brown eyes.  By the time they reach adulthood, the eye color of both sexes change to lemon yellow.  I looked closely at all of my juvenile photos and the eyes appear dark brown.  Without sunlight shining directly on the eye, even a light colored eye can appear dark so I'm not going to try to identify the gender of these juveniles. 

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile


The third sibling was watching as its siblings were slowly putting distance between them and the nest.  As the evening progressed, we saw what may be this juvenile's first flight.  It was getting dark so the wings are a blur but I captured the short flight.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

After that evening, I didn't know what to expect.  Would they be gone or will they return to the nest?  Is it over?  Well, not quite!  You've seen the food transfers between the male and female and now it was time to watch the parents teach the juveniles to hunt.  This was a challenge to photograph because they aren't restricted to the nesting area anymore; they have the entire hillside and more.

I waited about eight days before returning to allow time for the juveniles to grow and begin to fly more.  They grew fast.  On my next visit I was able to capture one of the older juveniles fly to a bush.  Still having balance issues on the small twigs, it sat for about five minutes with one wing suspended on a branch as seen in the photo on the right.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

Notice the color of the juvenile.  They look a lot like the female but have a chestnut colored underside instead of white streaks.

Just look at that face.  Isn't it a beautiful bird?

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

Feedings seem to be less frequent now.  I assume it's because they can eat more so they don't need fed as often.  The juveniles were spread out over the hillside now so, when mom or dad brought food to their side of the hill, I tried to be ready.  Here is a photo of dad flying over the juveniles to entice them to come after the food.  One soared upward but missed the dropping food.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juveniles during food drop training

Photo 1
Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juveniles during food drop training
Photo 2

The food doesn't go to waste.  If it drops to the ground the male watches it carefully and the juvenile soars downward to retrieve it. 

The opportunity to photograph an adult this close comes so infrequently, I have to share it.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

Now I was getting excited about the possibilities of photographing these hawks training their young to hunt.  So I kept going back!  Here is a photo of the male carrying food around the hillside trying to entice the juveniles to come after it.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale

 

The following action happened about 300 yards away from me so I wasn't able to crop the images very close. 

The male, in the top left of the photo, finally enticed two of this three youngsters to go after the food.  If performed enough, the young ones realize that the strongest, fastest, and most strong willed will get the food.  The training sessions eventually become a fighting match with the winner getting the drop.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juveniles Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juveniles

 

The male watches as his young fight for the meal. Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juveniles

 

Within seconds, there is a clear winner and it gets the food drop.  It tried to catch the rodent but its timing was off.  It immediately went to the ground with the food.  By the way, within seconds the other two juveniles were on top of the food too.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierMale and Juvenile

 

That was a thrilling event to watch and I'm sad to say it was the last food drop I could photograph.  Future food drops that I watched happened much too far away to photograph.  Since it was apparent they had left the nest and were not returning, I decided to walk out and see what a harrier nest looks like.  The platform is about 3 - 4 feet round. Notice in the photo below there was one unviable egg left in the nest.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierNest with one unviable egg

 

A few days went by and I decided to go back one more time.  See how this can become addicting?  I didn't see any food drops this day and I didn't see the Gray Ghost at all.  However, I did see the juveniles flying around the field and mom watching over them. The next photo is one of the three juveniles flying close to the ground.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

Two's company right?  These two juveniles share the same shrub.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuveniles Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuveniles

 

The juveniles were very cooperative on this day.  Here is another nice close-up of a juvenile perched on a small shrub.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

It perched for quite a while so I made a short video.  There isn't good sound on this video because I was under a blind and so was the microphone.  Click the icon in the center to play the video.

Northern Harrier Juvenile

 

Of all the countless hours I spent watching these birds I did not see the female perch close enough for a photograph.  If she wasn't perched far away, she was on the move keeping her babies safe and fed.  Finally, she landed on a small shrub about 40 yards away and stayed for a couple minutes.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierFemale

 

So, my entire experience has come to a close.  This was a fascinating experience to watch this process from nearly the beginning to the successful fledging of three healthy Northern Harriers.   I'm going to end this blog with a juvenile flying at you.

Northern HarrierNorthern HarrierJuvenile

 

If you are interested to see these, and additional photos of the Northern Harriers, you can view my Northern Harrier gallery.

All of the bird photographs in this photo blog were made using a Canon 1DX MK II body and a Canon 600mm f/4 II lens.  I also used a Canon 1.4 extender III most of the time.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

 


Comments

Mike Martin(non-registered)
What an amazing series of photos of the Northern Harrier! Great work!
Rochelle Clark(non-registered)
Spectacular album! You always teach us so much. Thank you!
Melanie Tepper(non-registered)
Awesome job Dan! They certainly are interesting and beautiful hawks!!
Linda Leidhecker(non-registered)
Thank you, thank you! This blog was thoroughly enjoyable. Loved the pictures, and all the information. Well done, Dan
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