Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grey Ghost

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I really didn’t have time this morning to look for, or even to look at, birds. My desk is piled high with work and I’m already falling behind even though the New Year is hardly a week old. But on my morning drive this morning, my bird-radar-instinct told me that it would be worth stopping in, just for a moment, to scan the big farm fields near the center of town. I pulled off the busy road, turned on to the smaller road that quickly degrades from pavement to broken pavement to dirt, and before I was even parked, a Northern Harrier floated into view, dipping and soaring low over the snowy fields. My instinct had been right.

My arrival may have spooked the Harrier, for almost immediately it rose above the trees at the edge of the field and headed north, out of sight. Thinking that it may have been headed for the golf courses and fields on the other side of the main road, I turned around and headed out. I rarely, if ever, “chase” birds, but this bird is a special one and one of my favorites, and there was a good chance I could see it again nearby and watch it hunting.

The Harrier, an especially lovely kind of hawk, was not at the golf course or in the surrounding fields, but recalling that there is great Harrier habitat just a few miles north, where agricultural and athletic fields provide open hunting areas, I drove on. And I was well rewarded, for as soon as I arrived at the new location, I spotted the Harrier, hunting low over a field where the dried grasses and snow made a beautiful backdrop for the bird’s white and grey plumage. I’m quite sure that this was the same bird I had seen 10 minutes earlier.

The Harrier is an elegant hawk, slim and buoyant in its flight. Like owls, harriers hunt for prey by listening for movements on the ground. And like owls, harriers have facial disks – concave feathered areas around their ears – which gather sounds and help them pinpoint the location of their prey (frogs, mice, etc.). The harriers tip and tilt as they fly to “point” their ears in various directions. When they hear or see prey, they drop to the ground with a quick twisting motion, extending their legs and talons, and broadening their wings to slow their descent. Their graceful flight appears effortless and almost balletic.

With silvery-grey plumage, snowy-white rump and underparts, and black wingtips, the adult Harrier, like the one I saw this morning, is known affectionately by birders as a “Grey Ghost.” And it really iseems ghostly as it flies low over the field, dipping below the grass now and then, leaving an impression of a silvery wraith. This effect was even more pronounced this morning, as the white bird dipped and floated over the snowy fields and rose briefly against the pewter sky.

For several minutes, the Harrier hunted busily, pouncing into the grass several times but coming up empty-taloned again and again. In the next field, three crows swaggered about, picking at the grass; soon, one of them lifted into the air and started chasing the Harrier around. (Harrying, it, I guess!). The Harrier shook off the Crow and continued hunting, then perched on a low post to rest for a few moments. Almost immediately, the resident Red-Tailed Hawk, which had been observing the scene from a high perch in a tall tree, swooped down on the Harrier, and the two engaged in a brief mid-air struggle before the Harrier gave up and winged away over the lake and behind the island. I turned my attention to the big dark Red-Tail, which immediately flew to perch on same post where the Harrier had been. (That’s my post! Go away!)

After a few minutes, I noticed that the Harrier was back; it was perched on the ground in the next field, eating something held in its talons. Good, I thought, that hungry bird has finally found something to eat. The meal didn’t last long; the three crows harassed the hawk, forcing it into the air again and again until it dropped its prey and flew away, headed south to another adjacent farm field. Two of the crows gave chase, while the third crow (clearly the smartest one) stayed put and ate the Harrier’s breakfast. Meanwhile, the Red-Tailed Hawk had gone back to its usual high perch, perhaps to wait for an unsuspecting squirrel or vole to venture out to feed.

I couldn’t help but notice how large an area the Harrier required for its hunting; in the space of just a half hour, I observed it over four large fields, its favored habitat, where it finds suitable prey and has room to maneuver. Harriers breed on the ground in fields and marshes. As more of our open areas are developed and built over, our open-land birds, such as the Harrier, Meadowlark, Bobolink, and American Kestrel are forced out…but to where? When they cannot find open land for breeding and hunting, they do not produce young and so their numbers continue to decline.

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