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It's in Your Nature: The northern harrier

The American Ornithological Union determines the names given to birds in North America. Over my many years on this earth, many bird names have changed. The Baltimore oriole became the northern oriole and now it is again the Baltimore oriole. The flicker, once named the yellow-shafted flicker is now the northern flicker. There have been many other name changes since then as well.

Ned Smith, the famous wildlife painter from Pennsylvania, illustrated most of the art work needed for the Pa. Game Commission’s pamphlets and charts. He referred to four of the raptors of which we may be familiar by different names. Those notable changes were: The sparrow hawk is now the American kestrel, the pigeon hawk is now the merlin, and the duck hawk is now identified as the peregrine falcon. I believe the last raptor name to change may be my favorite, the marsh hawk. The marsh hawk is now called the northern harrier.

Some of our military personnel may be familiar with a jet developed in Great Britain that is capable of a vertical takeoff from a ship’s deck and can also drop down vertically. This is the harrier jet. It was indeed named after the harrier (bird.) My “harrier” is a hawk that flies across a field, sometimes only yards above the ground, and then quickly drops straight down to grab its favorite prey, a field mouse. I’m surmising that someone felt it was an appropriate name for their new aircraft.

Unfortunately, the success afforded to the bald eagle has not carried through to the harriers. Harriers breed in marsh or wetland areas, mostly in Canada. They in turn like to do most of their feeding in those habitats as well, thus its original name, the marsh hawk. This is one of the few raptors that regularly will perch on the ground rather than on a tree branch or cliff face.

Marsh hawks migrate south in autumn, stopping along the way to feed in meadows and fallow fields with low vegetation. Most finally move to the coastal marshes for the winter. The decreasing acreage of wetlands and coastal marshes is taking a toll. Strip malls, warehouses, and housing developments are “biting” into the winter feeding areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, etc.

Comparing records of the migrating harriers that passed Bake Oven Knob shows that from 2000-2002, the average yearly migrants was 115. The past few years the average yearly migrants have dropped to 55. Although it is not a scientific study, these records, when averaged, do give a very good picture of raptors’ numbers. Bald eagle migrants passing the “Knob” indicated what we expected, from 2000-2002 an average of 182, and the past few years, 380 as a yearly average. By affording more and better habitat, like with the bald eagle, maybe we can see a rise in the harrier population.

The harrier, unlike any other raptors you may see in our area, nest on the ground in a raised clump of cattails or weeds. They lay 4 eggs and have one brood each breeding season. When leaving the nest, juvenile males and females have a chocolate brown color. As they mature, the female retains the basic brown coloration but the males develop a beautiful light gray plumage. Birders nickname them, the gray ghosts. This is the only raptor showing such a drastic difference in coloration, and like male and female cardinals, this is an example of sexual dichromatism.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The harrier and other raptors have one nest each year. How many nests does a mourning dove have? A. 1; B. 2; C. 4 or more.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The early “bloomer” along secondary roads is the coltsfoot.

A male harrier, also affectionately called the gray ghost, perches on the ground typically as northern harriers do. The harriers display sexual dichromatism with males and females having different adult plumages. BARRY REED PHOTOS
A juvenile harrier perches in a fallow field in January. Some will over-winter in our area but they depend on finding these dwindling fields in which to search for their prey. They are comparable in size to a red-tailed hawk but much slimmer.
As it typically does, a harrier flies butterfly-like just a few feet above a field, then with talons dangling below, often drops straight down to pounce on an unsuspecting field mouse.
Since they do often fly close to the ground, you can usually see another distinguishing field mark, the always present white rump patch just above the base of its tail.
Harriers, and turkey vultures, like the one shown here, soar with their wings held slightly upward “V shaped” called a dihedral.