Plants & Animals

Northern Harrier

The slender raptor glided back and forth across the winter prairie, occasionally brushing the tops of bluestem and prairie dock as it methodically scanned the frozen ground for rodents. As I tracked the winged hunter through my longest lens, it began to snow. The white flecks added contrast and texture to the chestnut-colored landscape. Seconds later, the female northern harrier, rim-lit by diffuse sunlight, drifted closer to my hide in a copse of wild plum. I swung the heavy lens, graceful itself on its silky gimbal, and captured the ethereal scene of bird and prairie. Delighted, I had recorded another wonderful memory on the 7,000-acre campus of August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area in St. Charles County.

The northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), is a lithe hawk with a small head and owl-like face. The female’s coloration is typically described as brown with streaked underparts, black bands on the tail, and a white rump patch. One would expect a rather plain-looking hawk, based on this description, but an actual encounter reveals a gorgeous raptor with rich mahogany plumage and ardent eyes. The male is impressive as well with its stark, gray plumage, black wingtips, and the same white rump patch. The male northern harrier is often referred to as the gray ghost.

Northern harriers are listed as an uncommon migrant in Missouri, typically spotted in the early spring and late fall. I’ve also seen them in the dead of winter, including the individual featured in this story. Harriers cruise close to the ground across fields and marshes in search of rodents, birds, snakes, and other small creatures. Based on my observations, the northern harrier is not a picky eater. One morning after an all-night rain, I watched a female harrier pluck nightcrawlers from the mowed trail behind my house for more than an hour.

If you would like to see a northern harrier for yourself, I suggest a nearby wetland area or other marshy landscape. Sometimes called a marsh hawk, the northern harrier drifts lazily over levees and wetland pools in search of an easy meal such as an unsuspecting shorebird. Its flight behavior is unmistakable as it completes a grid over its hunting ground, often hovering for seconds to pinpoint its prey. Watch for the signature white rump patch of the harrier to solidify your identification.

Although I’ve photographed northern harriers at Busch Conservation Area where I work, the farm in Franklin County where I live, and several Department wetland areas, I’ve yet to capture the perfect shot of the elusive male — the gray ghost! Recently, I photographed a male from my deck, which sits high above a descending prairie hillside. Unfortunately, the dreamy gray bird was quartering away from me so I was unable to capture its intense stare. I chalked the experience up to “almost” and took pleasure in knowing that the challenge before me was attainable after all.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

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