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Northern Harriers

Portrait Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus, Gavilán rastrero
hugocorzo/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Portrait Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus, Gavilán rastrero

I have a confession to make. For years, I was obsessed with the goal of capturing photos of Northern Harriers.

I chased these magnificent raptors on hikes near our home in the Bitterroot Valley, along irrigation ditches bordering ranchland, in parks, and at wildlife refuges.

Each time I left home to go “birding” I was excited to observe and capture photos of a variety of birds.

But, deep down, the ultimate prize I envisioned was a photo of a Harrier – not just a photo that would confirm a sighting of a Harrier, but one that would produce a crisp, clear imagephoto that would stop action in flight and show the “shine of the eye.”

Northern Harriers are considered one of the most elusive raptors, and some of the most accomplished wildlife photographers admit how difficult they are to photograph. Male Harriers, with their white underside and opaque gray-back plumage, seem to be even more challenging to photograph than the brown and much larger females. For that reason, many birders and photographers call male Harriers “Gray Ghosts.”. One moment they’re in your viewfinder, the next, they’re gone.

My first encounter with a Harrier was on a summer day while walking our three border collies along the irrigation ditch.

Flying over hundreds of acres of sagebrush, athe female harrier, with her chestnut- brown plumage, hovered in midair like a helicopter. With deep-dish, owl-like faces, Harriers hunt by sound, just like owls. They are the only hawks that come close to the unparalleled hearing of owls, hovering above their prey before diving in for the kill. When she came up from the sagebrush, she had a rodent in her talons, probably a vole. The drama unfolded nearly 500 yards away. It would be as close as I would get to a Harrier for years.

After years of trying—and failing— to capture and document my observation of Harriers, I realized it was time to change my approach. I’m finally understanding that these beautiful creatures deserve my respect. They’re not just another notch on my birding belt.

Harriers have taught me that this is not just a pursuit game for me to win. The challenging Harriers were teaching me to go deep and not necessarily broad with my approach to birding.

Harriers are sharpening my naturalist skills: take notes, observe, be patient, learn from other scientists. I accepted that this is a long game, not a quick photo.

The more deeplyer I observed and read the researched of others, the more it became very clear what an anomaly Northern Harriers are among other raptors. Males and females both have a distinguishing white rump band. They are often referred to as “marsh hawks” because they are ground nesters and often nest in dense, high grasses near water. Some migrate south; others endure the long winters here. Juveniles are difficult to identify because both sexes are brown. In the winter, Harriers often roost on the ground with Short-eared Owls.

Males breed with up to five females each spring, and while they help with the early stages of nest building, females do most of the work. Females will ferociously defend their winter hunting ground against males.

With spring finally returning to the Bitterroot Valley, I have come to my senses, literally and metaphorically. On a recent day at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, my wife and I sat for hours watching the mating ritual of Harriers dancing in the sky. We heard their calls far above us long before we saw them. We sat quietly against a rise in the land bordering a pond and watched as three males competed not only for breeding rights, but for access to the rich hunting and nesting ground.

The Harriers were comfortable with us at this distance, and we felt fortunate to observe them in their world. I snapped a few blurry distance shots, but the experience will always remain clear in my mind.

Today’s Field Note was written by Mark Armstrong in the Field Notes Writing Workshop at the Montana Natural History Center. I’m Allison De Jong for Field Notes, brought to you by the Montana Natural History Center, providing natural history education for schools and the public throughout Montana. To find out about upcoming events and programs at the Center, call 406.327.0405, or visit our website at

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