Northern Harrier

The current name for this raptor is a northern harrier (Circus cyaneus). However, when I first learned to identify a northern harrier it was called a “marsh hawk”. Plus marsh hawk seems to flow more smoothly than northern harrier. So, although it is a harrier, I stubbornly will continue to call it a marsh hawk.

The marsh hawk breeds/summers in Canada, parts of Alaska and the northern tier of states while wintering throughout most of the contiguous states. We are fortunate to have this raptor year-round in our area (Modoc County CA). Although the marsh hawk is a rather common sight flying slowly near the ground in search of small rodents, it never seems to perch. That makes taking a picture of a marsh hawk difficult.

The other day in the bright morning sunlight I saw a marsh hawk eating a vole on the ground in the pasture next to the house. I was so excited and in such a rush to get a picture, any picture, that I did not do a very good job. I am still going to post the pictures since they are the first marsh hawks I ever photographed that were not flying.

Marsh hawks are different from most raptors in two ways. First the males and females have different plumage. The females, which is larger than a male, has a dark brown back, head and upper wings with lighter brown underparts and brown streaking on the breast. A male’s head, back and upper chest are gray while the chest and belly are white. The tips of his wings are black and there is a black line on the trailing edge of the wings. Both sexes have yellow eyes, black hooked bills that are yellow at the base and a bright white rump. It is this white rump which makes identification of marsh hawks in the field rather easy.

Mice, voles, other small mammals and small birds comprise the marsh hawk’s diet. Occasionally they will take rabbits or ducks. The second way in which marsh hawks differ from most other raptors is that they use hearing as well as vision to capture prey. Marsh hawks have a facial disc similar to that of an owl and their facial feathers are stiff, both aural adaptations. In addition the feathers of the marsh hawk are soft resulting in quiet flight.

The stereotype of a raptor nest is a twig platform atop a dead tree or on a rocky overhang. The marsh hawk nests on the ground in open fields or meadows. A male will mate with one or two females at a time and over the course of the summer may sire up to five broods. The female incubates the eggs and cares for the brood while the male provides food for his mates and offspring. I never have found a marsh hawk nest even though we are surrounded by the perfect habitat for breeding.

The pictures of the gray male were taken near our house (Lookout CA). I photographed the brown, flying female at Ash Creek Wildlife Area last fall. Note the distinctive white rump patch.

Meanwhile my quest for better marsh hawk pictures will continue!

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