The Northern harrier sometimes referred to as marsh hawk is one of my favorite raptors.
This hawk is widespread throughout North America.
It is a medium-sized raptor with long, broad wings, long tail and a very noticeable white rump patch. The sexes and juveniles look quite different from each other.
The adult males are grayish on the back with a pale breast and dark wing tips. The adult females are brownish overall with brown streaking on the breast. Juveniles have a rusty-colored breast with a dark head.
This is the only raptor with an owl-like facial structure. The noticeable white rump patch is always present.
This raptor prefers open grasslands, pastures, farmlands and marshes. It is often seen flying low to the ground in search of food. Mid-to-Northern New Mexico is in the harrier’s winter to year-round range.
One place that I consistently see Northern harriers year-round is at the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex south of Albuquerque. The open farm fields and marsh areas are the perfect habitat for this species.
Harriers can also be seen in open pastures along the Rio Grande Valley and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro. During fall migration, I have even seen Northern harriers flying low over my neighborhood in Albuquerque.
Northern harriers forage on the wing, flying low over the ground searching for food by sight and sound. Their owl-like, disk-shaped face has stiff facial feathers that help direct sounds to their ears which assist in detecting small prey. Their foods include small mammals, reptiles and birds. They will sometimes take on larger prey like rabbits and ducks.
During the summer nesting season the male harrier establishes a territory and courts a female by performing an elaborate aerial display. The male flies in a roller coaster-like pattern up to 1,000 feet off the ground covering more than half a mile. A male will sometimes have up to five mates in one nesting season which surely keeps him very busy.
The female tends to the nest and young while the male hunts for the food. Juvenile harriers play and practice hunting skills by pouncing on inanimate objects such as corncobs.
Northern harriers are fairly common but in decline. Habitat loss including reforestation of the open agricultural lands needed for hunting, pesticide use and over grazing can negatively affect the harrier’s food supply. Fortunately, Northern harriers are still welcomed by most due to their ability to keep mouse populations under control.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A life-long birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”