Sunday, September 18, 2011

Up, Up, and Away

Yesterday, on a late-afternoon walk toward the meadows, D and I caught a brief glimpse of a juvenile Northern Harrier flying over the little river. We speculated about where it might be heading (it was winging steadily east, away from its typical hunting habitat) and whether it might be a local bird or a migrant. It reminded me of an interesting experience I had just about a year ago, about a mile away.

It was a mid-September morning, and I was visiting one of my favorite birding patches, a large agricultural area where local farmers cultivate corn, squash, pumpkins, cabbages, and sunflowers. This marvelous spread of land, on the edge of the river flood plain, offers broad level fields with rich soil and easy access. A road runs partway through the center of the area, providing superb views over the fields and to the wood edges and, across the field to the east, the river itself. The road starts out paved, but soon erodes into dirt and finally into mud. (Four-wheel drive required.) The area floods frequently. During the spring and fall, this is great habitat for grassland and tundra migrants, particularly American Pipit, Killdeer and other shorebirds (“grasspipers”), Palm Warblers, White-crowned and Lincoln’s sparrows, American Kestrels, and Northern Harriers. Last fall I was lucky enough to come upon a Short-eared Owl resting there – a rare bird indeed for our area.

On this bright fall morning, I was just sitting in the truck watching sparrows. (Yes, sparrows* can be pretty interesting when there are six or eight different species that need sorting out.) A lilting movement caught my eye: It was a big Northern Harrier, sailing low over the fields, tipping and tilting this way and that as it hunted for rodents. This took my attention away from the sparrows. A raptor will almost always divert my attention from…well, almost anything. This was one of the juvenile Harriers that I had been watching in the area over the summer: mahogany brown above, deep russet below, with the snowy white rump that is characteristic of Harriers.

I watched the Harrier criss-cross the fields, hoping to see it make a capture. But it didn’t, and soon it started to rise above the fields, circling on the updrafts. Hmm. I’d rarely seen this behavior from a Harrier. From buteos, yes, such as our familiar Red-tailed Hawk, which hunts by sight while soaring far above the ground. But the Harrier hunts by listening for rodents as it glides just a foot or two above the ground.

So what was this bird up to?

Well, soon it was “up to” several hundred feet, circling up, up, up….and then it stopped circling, stopped, rising, set its wings, and began a long, long glide, heading directly south. It would glide like this for miles, slowly losing altitude, after which it would circle up, up, up again and take another long glide, heading ever south.

It would not be back until spring.

This was an amazing moment. I had just seen a bird ― an individual bird ― begin its migration. We know that “birds migrate,” and we see flocks and large movements of many birds. But how often are we privileged to witness a singular decisive moment in the life of an individual wild creature?

I watched the bird as it glided over the river, over the village, over the tall white church steeple, past the big hill that’s behind my house, and then it was gone.

Read more about Harriers in our neighborhood here:

* By “sparrows,” I most decidedly do not refer to the noisy, messy house sparrows that infest our cities, towns, and, increasingly, my neighborhood.

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