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Thursday, January 7, 2016

This winter we on the Niagara Frontier have been graced by good numbers of northern harriers (which were once called “marsh hawks.”)

Typically, these beautiful hawks aren’t here in any volume in the winter months because the snow inhibits their ability to hunt the open fields for mice and voles, so they head south where it’s not an issue. But, the season has, for the most part, been snow free, so our friends from the north are sticking around and having a productive time flying over local wheat and alfalfa fields.

Identifying harriers

Harriers can fly and glide up to 100 miles per day. (Photo courtesy of 
New Hampshire Fish & Game Department)
Harriers are fairly large birds of prey, coming in at 18 to 24 inches in length. To put that into perspective, the common red-tailed hawk is 19 to 25 inches in length. They look smaller, though, because they aren’t as bulky as red-tails and are more streamlined.

Male harriers have a grey back and lightly-streaked underbelly while females are brown. Both sexes have a white rump patch, which is very noticeable in flight or when the bird is perched on a fence post.

Harriers on the hunt

Strictly a bird of wide open spaces (you won’t find them in woods, brush, or backyards), they are easy to identify when they are flying about in search of rodents. They glide, with slight v-shape to the wings, and it’s that light, ballet-like flight that makes them so fun to watch.

Unlike other hawks which will fly or hover far above a field, or watch that field from a high perch,
harriers hunt close to the turf. Their beautiful maneuvers take place from 2 to 10 feet above the ground.

Those low flyovers allow them to catch voles off guard and then pounce on the mouse-like creatures
with ferocity. Other open space hawks like red-tails will dive bomb or fall onto their prey from great

Harriers can cover some impressive territory in their hunts and tracking devices have shown that the
combined distances of their flights and glides can reach 100 miles per day!

Harriers have disc-like pockets on their faces, just like owls do, which makes for great hearing ability, which adds to their ability to surprise their meals – they don’t necessarily have to see them, they can hear them running through the grasses.

A rare summer bird

Harriers used to be very common birds in the Niagara County summers, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even back when I was a kid in the 1980s, I thought they could be seen in good numbers. But, they’ve been on the decline, with their population dropping as much as 1.6% per year since the late-1960s. The Department of Environmental Conservation considers them “threatened” in New York. If I see just one of these birds in June or July, I consider myself very lucky.

Their losses come from a number of factors. Mostly, it’s because of the decline in family farms and those former farms becoming brush or woodlots.

Then, the farms that do remain have changed their practices. Nowadays, you see less pasture or hay and alfalfa fields, and more cash crops like beans and corn which the ground-nesting harriers will not raise their young in. Adding insult to injury, when they do have the chance to breed in the alfalfa and hay fields that do remain, their nests are destroyed by early cuts in June. They can’t recover with a second brood, because some farms are fortunate enough to have 3 or 4 cuttings per summer.

Some birders might cast an angry glare at farms that do this, and they might blame them for destroying the harriers. But, look at it this way – the only reason the harriers existed in Niagara County and the only reason a few here and there can maintain nests locally is the fact that the farms exist. No fields equals no harriers.

It’s sort of like a chicken or the egg quandary. In this case, we know that the fields came first: Niagara County was a great forest before the White Man came, meaning that there were no harriers here at all.

But, we are blessed to have them here in the present. Although they might be rare in the summer
months, they are fairly -- and temporarily -- common right now. They will be until the snow buries the local fields. So, over the next few days, while passing through the wide open spaces of Gasport or
Somerset, pull over to the side of the road and appreciate the low-flying majestic glides of this beautiful predator. They are truly a wonderful sight to behold.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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