Female Northern Harrier

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There are certain species that I long to photograph, but that seem forever to evade my camera.  The Northern Harrier is one of those.  They are not uncommon birds, inhabiting southern Arizona’s grasslands and agricultural country during autumn and winter.  But, they are the Devil to photograph.  Perching harriers will never, it seems, allow a photographer to come close enough to get a decent image.  Harriers in flight always seem to be flying away from the photographer.

I’d despaired of ever getting a decent image of this species until about three days ago.  Then, my luck changed.  I was walking on a path in a marsh preserve, looked ahead of me, and saw a female Northern Harrier sitting on a post.  She was about 50 yards away when I spotted her and, as I crept towards her, I assumed that she’d never let me get within photographing distance.  To my surprise and great delight, she allowed me to approach to about 20 yards before flying.


Northern Harriers have a nearly world-wide distribution in the Northern Hemisphere.  They are hawk-like raptors with faces that somewhat resemble some owls’ faces.  They specialize in preying on small rodents and on other creatures at ground level that they can surprise and seize.


The sexes of Northern Harriers are colored differently.  A female, such as the one depicted here, has dark chestnut outer wings and a chestnut and white checkered breast and abdomen.  She has a very distinctive white patch at the upper base of her tail.  A male is colored a pale silvery gray and also has a characteristic white rump.

These birds have a unique style of hunting.  A Northern Harrier will fly low, usually just a few feet above the ground, and very slowly, as it criss-crosses an open area such as a field or marsh.  As it forages it looks down constantly, searching the ground for prey.  When a harrier spots prey it makes a sudden and short dive.  If it is successful, the harrier will fly a short distance with its prey, perch (often on the ground) and devour it.


A Northern Harrier’s face is unique among raptors.  It resembles a circular dish with the eyes set close together.  The disk magnifies sound, giving harriers among the more acute hearing of any animal or bird.  It may be that the close-set eyes give the bird excellent binocular vision, abetting its hunting from close range.


I’ve read that harriers’ eyes turn lighter as they age.  This female has very dark eyes, so perhaps, she is a young bird.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x Telextender, aperture priority setting.  The first, second and fourth images shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/800.  The third image also shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/2000.

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