Female harrier hawk


On a late fall afternoon, my husband and I took a walk along the road beside the Wallkill River.  We were pleased that the recent rains had raised the water level.  We could hear the swoosh of the current again. The leaves on the trees were lemon yellow, with an occasional splash of scarlet. 

From overhead sounded a bird call that I didn’t recognize.  It took a close search of the branches above to spot a large bird, a raptor.  I am enamored of raptors.  In the past two weeks I’ve seen two bald eagles, or maybe one bald eagle twice.

This bird above my head called out, “skeek-eek-eek-eek-eek!”  I pointed it out to my husband, and the hawk must have taken offense because it spread its wings and glided across to the other side of the river.

As it flew, I spotted the light-feathered underside and white patch that told me this was not a red-tail hawk.  It screeched again.  I pulled out my trusty iPhone and searched for raptors of New York.  The photo of the harrier left no doubt that this was the bird we were seeing.  Just to be sure, I located recordings of harrier hawk calls.  There was a match: the female.  Female raptors tend to be larger than the males, and this was a big bird.

At home, I found more information about the harrier hawk.

The Northern harrier, formerly known as the marsh hawk, hunts primarily on the wing and may cover up to 100 miles per day. Its prey, consisting of mostly rodents and small birds, is detected using extremely keen hearing. This 16-24 inch, slender-bodied hawk has a long tail and wings, long yellow legs, distinct facial disks and a conspicuous white rump patch. In flight, the wings are held in a shallow “V.” The adult male is pale gray on the head, back and wings. The gray tail is banded with six to eight gray-brown bars. There is cinnamon-brown spotting on the legs and flanks, and the wing linings and undertail are white. The eyes of an adult male are yellow.

Female plumage is browner overall with dark streaks on the breast. The female is born with brown eyes which turn yellow at about three years of age. Juveniles resemble adult females, but have gray eyes. When startled, this species makes a rapid, nasal chattering “ke-ke-ke-ke-ke”.

This raptor is considered one of the most agile and acrobatic in North America. During the breeding season, the male performs an elaborate courtship flight consisting of a series of U-shaped maneuvers. The nest is a flimsy structure built of sticks and grass on the ground. It can be found in dense vegetation or situated in a slightly elevated position. The clutch averages five eggs. Incubation lasts 30-32 days and begins before the last egg is laid, so the young vary in size. The young fledge in 30-41 days, then remain near the nest, dependent on their parents for three to four weeks. Clutches are larger and reproductive success is higher during years when vole populations are high.

–From New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Check out a harrier in flight.

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