The Elusive Northern Harrier

January 16th, 2021 ~ I had already been to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge twice in this new year, but I was eager to go again. I love the wide-open space spreading for miles, and the variety of birds that hunt and breed there. And, I’ve been breaking my “wait for cloudy days” rule for bird photography, simply for the joy of being outdoors. During these winter months, the birds I’m most eager to see are the raptors: hawks, eagles and falcons are all soaring across the marshes hunting. And of those, I’ve found that the Northern Harrier has been frustratingly difficult to photograph… because she is a wily hunter staying far from roads and people, and because her flight pattern usually puts her in and behind the tall marsh grasses.

Juvenile Northern Harrier making a turn in the distance, January 2020, cropped to 50% full-frame
1/8000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR (my old lens)
(Click on any image to enlarge in a new window; click again to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here)

Even from a great distance, Harriers are recognizable by their bright white rump patch. Harriers also have a very recognizable flight pattern, swooping along just above the ground, sailing with very few wing beats in a straight path, covering hundreds of feet. At the end of their run they fly upward with slow strong strokes, tip up on edge and make a U-turn, then swoop down for another run along the same path back to the starting point. For a year, I’ve been watching Harriers do this, wishing that I had, oh, I don’t know, maybe a 1000mm lens, instead of my very worthy (but a bit short for these birds) 500mm lens.

Northern Harrier hunting in the far distance, January 2020, cropped to 10% of full-frame
1/8000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR (my old lens)

I’ve photographed Harriers many times, keeping the shots as “documentary” images… where I saw one, what it was doing, how far away it was. Here, a distant bird plunged into the tall reeds off the Shoveler Pond boardwalk a year ago to catch dinner – perhaps a rabbit, nutria, or coot.

Adult female Northern Harrier, on an approach run
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

But on this particular day, we were in for a treat. We had parked along the southern edge of Shoveler Pond, and I was walking east, watching for ducks. In the distance, I spotted a Harrier, flying low and slow. She was headed toward me, eyes intent on the ground for her prey. The short wing feathers at the leading edge of the bend in her wing are the “alula”, sometimes called the “bastard wing”. The word is Latin for “winglet”. As explained by a fascinating article at Eastern Kentucky University, the alulae smooth airflow over the wings at slow speeds, improving lift.

Northern Harrier, showing the distinctive white rump patch
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

She swept upward and turned – and then circled to return to her original path. This appears to be an adult female Northern Harrier. Adult males are grey on top and cream with minimal streaking below. Adult females are brown on top, and cream with heavy brown streaks below. Juveniles are brown on top with an unstreaked cinnamon belly.

Correcting for the cross-wind, with a tail waggle
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I was sure she would head off into the marsh long before she got close, but she didn’t. She kept coming. Harriers rely heavily on acute hearing as well as sharp vision to locate their prey. A ruff of stiff feathers surrounds her face and helps gather and focus sounds to her ears, similar to an owl’s facial disks.

Northern Harrier, giving me the stink-eye
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

She silently soared straight down the edge of the road, then whooshed by, glaring at my chittering camera, which, to her ears, must have been annoyingly loud.

Northern Harrier making one last circle, checking for prey
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

She executed another sweeping turn, gaining elevation.  

Northern Harrier tucks her wings for a speedy departure
1/2500 sec. f/9 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

She finally decided the marshes to the east looked like better hunting, and winged off toward the horizon.

Another photographer had stopped near me before the Harrier’s approach, and we were both talking at once. “Do you have her?” “I see her!” “Here she comes!!” “Did you get her?” As she flew off, we were grinning a mile wide. A close pass by the elusive Northern Harrier is a rare and wonderful experience.

6 thoughts on “The Elusive Northern Harrier”

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