Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus

Formerly known as “Marsh Hawk”, an appropriate moniker I believe. They are usually found performing lazy passes, and sailing over grassy fields and wetlands, and when they sense an opportunity, they will drop to the ground and overpower any prey they can. More often their prey is small rodents and birds, but larger prey, such as coots, may be taken if the harrier can pull it off.

Between Summer and Winter these raptors will range over most of the North American continent’s wetlands and grass fields. Some Northern Harriers will migrate in spring as far north as Canada and Alaska, and retreat south in winter ranging from much of the USA and south through Mexico, Central America and barely into Colombia.

Males might have as many as five mates in a season, a practice known as polygyny, which is rare among raptors. Color can usually differentiate males and females. The girls are more brown, while the boys are more silvery and even whitish.

Not only do these hawks have owl-like faces, their hearing is highly developed. Like owls, this allows them to find unseen prey. Their ear holes are larger than most hawks, and their disc-like faces have stiff feathers that funnel sounds into their ears. At Heron Flats in Aransas NWR Texas, I observed these birds foraging over the deep grass marshes and pouncing from the air into the thick grass and brush. I can only assume it was an example of hunting by ear. It would be very unlikely that a sense of sight gave away the prey’s position.

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