Northern harrier: the gray ghost.
Across North America, from the Arctic Tundra to the grasslands south of the border, if you look in the right places, you’ll find peculiar creatures haunting the landscape. First they'll come into view over a distant marsh or meadow, steel gray with glowing yellow eyes. Then they’ll drift slowly across the land, silently stalking their prey. In short, they're pretty unsettling, but these “gray ghosts,” as they’re known, aren't visitors from the other side. They're Northern Harriers—adult male Northern Harriers, to be specific—and not only are they our spookiest hawks, but they may also be our most unusual.
The Northern Harrier is this continent’s only representative of a global group of raptors that are specially designed for silent hunting: Its long, broad wings allow it to cruise low, with minimal flapping, and it moves slowly for a hawk—no need for the showy speed of falcons or the lumbering hulk of buteos here. Northern Harriers hunt using their ears as well as their eyes, and to help them they’ve evolved a special circular arrangement of stiff feathers on their face that collects the sounds of rustling creatures and focuses them on the bird’s ears. These “facial discs” are rare in hawks but commonplace in owls, and if you perceive something owlish in the harrier’s face, that’s why. Unlike owls, though, Northern Harriers are bold enough to hunt during the day, cruising over wetlands, grasslands, prairies, fields, or anywhere else little animals are trying to use vegetation to hide. When it spots its prey—a mouse, or a vole, or a snake, or maybe a duck or shorebird—it uses its long tail like an aerial rudder to maneuver quickly into position to pounce. If there’s water around, Northern Harriers have even been known to kill their larger victims by drowning them.
Despite their unnerving vibe, there's no need to fear the Northern Harrier—they’re not interested in humans (although according to an unsourced claim on Wikipedia, some Europeans once believed that a harrier perched on your roof was an omen that three people would die). And should you want to seek them out, you can find Northern Harriers all over the U.S., especially in winter. But if you’re only going by color, you may be missing them—unlike most hawks we have in America, male and female Northern Harriers have very different plumages, and only adult males are “gray ghosts,” with gray feathers on the back and pure white below, with black on the tips and trailing edge of the wings. Females, meanwhile, are brown-backed and streaked below, while juveniles of both sexes are brown with rich orange bellies. Despite their differences, all Northern Harriers have one characteristic in common: a bright white rump, which, combined with the bird’s unique flight silhouette—the Northern Harrier glides with its wings positioned in a V-shape, like a Turkey Vulture—serves as a pretty good tip-off that you’re looking at a Circus cyaneus .
Northern Harriers are also found across Europe and Asia, where they’re known as Hen Harriers (a reference to their penchant for young grouse and fowl), and in England they’ve even been the subject of royal intrigue. In October 2007, birders at a nature reserve in Norfolk, England, watched as two Hen Harriers were shot out of the sky . The shots had come from the adjacent estate—which happened to belong to the Queen. Shooting Hen Harriers is illegal in the U.K., and investigators interviewed three people who had been hunting on the estate when the harriers were killed—including none other than Prince Harry himself, as well as a family friend and a gamekeeper from the estate. The bodies of the harriers were never found, however, and no charges were brought.
Why would anyone want to shoot harriers? Unfortunately, the harrier’s penchant for grouse has gotten it into trouble in the U.K., where hunting for red grouse is a big business on estates. Human/harrier competition over grouse there has led to the persecution of harriers, and while globally the species’ populations are quite healthy, in England they’re plummeting, making the Hen Harrier the most endangered breeding bird of prey in the country. (For more on the plight of the Hen Harrier, see here .) If conservationists and the government can’t find a way to successfully protect them, England’s Hen Harriers could become ghosts for real. Now that’s scary.
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Northern Harrier – The Grey Ghost
Now that November has come, most of our winter birds have returned. One of my favorites is a hawk called the Northern Harrier.
Male Northern Harriers are very light gray on the head, white on the breast, and darker gray on the back. Their appearance has earned them the nickname “gray ghost.” The bird has an owl-like appearance (though it is a hawk, not an owl) with the face flattened with two facial discs.
In flight, male Northern Harriers show extensive white on the underwing with black tips to the flight feathers and the trailing edge. The tail is quite long for a bird of prey. There’s a prominent white band at the base of the upperside of the tail. The wings are held in a strong V-like angle, known as a dihedral (pronounced die-hee-drul).
Female Northern Harriers look pretty different. They’re brown above and cinnamon on the breast with darker brown streaks. The underside of the wings are heavily barred with darker brown bands, as is the tail. Like males, the birds have a prominent white band across the base of the upper side of the tail. Structurally, they’re also like males—long-tailed and flat-faced with a V-like angle to the wings when soaring or gliding low over fields.
Immature Northern Harriers look very close to adult females. The only differences are the tawny cinnamon coloration on the breast without much streaking, the increased white around the eye, and buffy tips to the feathers on the back and folded wings.
A Winter Grassland Hawk
Harriers nest across much of Canada and the northern Great Plains in the U.S. There are states in the northern U.S. where the birds are present year-round, but for most of the Lower 48, including our part of Texas, the species is a winter visitor. Here in Taylor County, harriers show up in early October and leave by early May. While it’s not unprecedented for birds to hang around through the summer, it’s rare.
In Taylor County, we seem to have far more females and young birds than we do adult males. I seem to remember reading somewhere that most males spend the winter further to the north, but now I can’t find this fact anywhere, so I’m not sure if that’s true. Whatever the cause, I’d guess we see only 1 adult male for every 20 harriers that we encounter.
Harriers hunt by flying low over grassy fields trying to ambush or spook their prey. They eat lots of rodents and the occasional songbird too. They are capable of hovering and making quick aerial turns in pursuit of prey.
Now that harriers are back, I look forward to watching them hunt on cold winter days.
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Northern Harrier – Gray Ghost
The male Northern Harrier is often called “The Gray Ghost”. The blue-gray color of the male is quite different than the browns the female displays plus the eyes of the male are a striking yellow while the females have straw yellow eyes. I see harriers here in Utah during the summer but the numbers during the winter far exceed those of warmer months.
The image above was created under the challenging circumstance where the light was low. I primarily photograph birds using Aperture Priority . I turn off the auto ISO on my camera, then I am able to change my ISO and aperture to get the shutter speed I feel is needed for the subject. Normally for a bird in flight I would want a shutter speed of at least 1/1000, I was not able to obtain that for this photo so there is some motion blur of the wingtips. I used ISO 640, which might be pushing the limits on my Nikon D200 as far as producing images without excessive noise, then selected f5.6 to help with increasing my shutter speed. The biggest issue was the low light and I had to use +1.0 evaluation compensation to expose the bird well, that slowed my shutter speed down some.
I did not apply Noise Reduction to this image in post-processing but did have the Auto Noise reduction feature of my camera turned on, that feature applies noise reduction automatically at ISO 400 and above.
I will have more opportunities with Northern Harriers in better light this winter and while I wouldn’t consider this image perfect, I am happy with the results I obtained while photographing this “Gray Ghost”.
Life is good.
Click here to view more of my Northern Harrier photos plus facts and information about this species.
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That is a fantastic shot of the Gray Ghost. Really beautiful work despite the conditions.
Thank you Tania, Gray Ghosts are truly beautiful birds.
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The Grey Ghost
Northern harrier hawk we were enjoying our lunch when this northern harrier came and perched right in front of us and posed for a few photos. after watching for a minute or two, she flew away looking for a mouse. www.dex.photos.
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- Scientific Name: Circus hudsonius
- Population: 790,000
- Trend: Decreasing
- Habitat: Breeds and winters in open spaces such as fields, marshes, and savannah.
About the Northern Harrier
The Northern Harrier, also known as the "Marsh Hawk" for one of its favorite habitats, is a slim raptor with long wings, legs, and tail. The sexes appear different: The male is bluish-gray above with white underparts, a distinctive coloration that earns it the nickname among birders of "Gray Ghost." Meanwhile, female and immature birds are brown with streaked undersides. All have a distinctive white rump, an excellent identifying field mark that can be seen even at a distance.
A Northern Harrier's low, buoyant flight style while hunting — somewhat like a Short-eared Owl's — also helps to identify it: While searching for prey, this nimble raptor slowly flaps and glides just above the ground, holding its wings in a shallow V, known as a dihedral.
An Owl-like Hawk
A closer look at the Northern Harrier reveals another owl-like feature — a "radar dish" of short feathers forming a ruff around its face and neck. This attribute, known as a facial disk, amplifies a bird's hearing, and is more often seen in owl species such as the Northern Hawk Owl , and other raptors that depend on accurate hearing, including the Harpy Eagle , which inhabits dense tropical forests. Like these birds, the Northern Harrier uses its augmented sense of hearing as well as its sight to help locate prey.
Songs and Sounds
Calls include a long, rapid series of kek notes. Listen here:
There is also a higher-pitched, squealing call often emitted by the female while soliciting food from her mate. Listen here:
Breeding and Feeding
The Northern Harrier also has unusual mating habits for a bird of prey. Although many pairs are monogamous (one male/one female), others employ a polygynous breeding system, where one male will mate with several females. A polygynous male can have a "harem" of up to five females, although most have only one or two mates at the same time.
The male harrier advertises his territory to females through a swooping, twirling "sky dance" display of U-shaped dives. Interested females will move into the territory and claim a nest site. The female builds a platform nest of sticks and vegetation on the ground, with the male also contributing material. Nests are usually located at or adjacent to rich hunting grounds, often in a wet meadow or freshwater marsh, and sometimes in a farm field or on a prairie.
Female harriers lay three to six eggs, then incubate them for roughly a month. The male brings food to his mates and young during incubation and for the first few weeks after the eggs hatch. After that, the female takes over the food provisioning. Northern Harriers may nest in loose colonies of 15 to 20 birds.
During the winter, the Northern Harrier roosts in groups — another behavior similar to that of the Short-eared Owl. These two species often share the same winter habitats, the Northern Harrier active on the "day shift," while the Short-eared Owl takes over the same hunting territory as night falls. The harrier and the owl often interact during their overlapping "shift change" at dusk — dive-bombing and harassing each other.
The Northern Harrier's diet consists mainly of small mammals, such as voles, rats, and ground squirrels. This versatile hunter may also snatch open-field birds such as the Horned Lark and Grasshopper Sparrow , or reptiles, amphibians, and large insects. It mainly forages while in flight, sticking low to the ground as it systematically quarters to and fro. It can also hunt on foot, and has been known to use its long legs to drown large prey by holding it underwater.
Region and Range
The Northern Harrier has a wide distribution throughout North America, breeding from northern Alaska and Canada to southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico. Some migrate as far south as northern South America, but if enough food is available, birds across a broad swath of the lower 48 U.S. states and as far north as the Canadian portion of the Pacific Northwest may remain on their territory year-round.
This harrier is the only Northern American representative of the genus Circus . This genus name derives from the Ancient Greek word kirkos (circle), and refers to the Northern Harrier's slow, circling flight style. The Northern Harrier was once considered the same species as the Hen Harrier of Eurasia, but was split in 2016 on the basis of genetics and plumage characteristics.
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This unusual raptor is threatened by habitat loss caused by wetland drainage, the clearing of grasslands, and reforestation of farmland, which reduces prey availability and nesting and roosting sites. Pesticides can accumulate in harrier eggs, impacting breeding success, and can cause secondary effects in birds that prey upon poisoned rodents and birds.
ABC works with a variety of partners to conserve grassland habitats across the Americas that are used by the Northern Harrier and many other species. National wildlife refuges and other protected areas also provide key strongholds for this grassland- and wetland-dependent species. Protection and restoration of suitable habitats are critical to keep populations of the Northern Harrier aloft.
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- Population: 600,000 (North America); 3 million (worldwide)
- Trend: Unknown
- Population: 130,000 (North America); 250,000 (World)
- Trend: Stable
- Population: Fewer than 50,000
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