Grays Harbor Birds - Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier is one of my favorite birds, and fairly easy to find. I most often see them out on the beach flying just above the tops of the dunes, long, slender wings raised in an open “v” shape called a dihedral, intently looking and listening below for small mammals and birds. If they find something, they twist abruptly and drop down on their prey, or they may just hover in place to see if there is actually a chance for a meal. When not flying, they prefer a low perch and are often overlooked in the open.

Their face is like an owl’s, with stiff feathers forming a short ruff around the head that magnifies sound from below. Their body is slender, with a long, barred tail for easy maneuverability.

The male Northern Harrier is gray above, an unmarked, light color below, and has black wingtips and black on the trailing edge of his secondary flight feathers. The female is brown above with brown and buff streaking below. Juvenile birds are brown above and a sort of cinnamon-colored rusty brown below. All have distinctive white rump-patches at the base of their tail.

Here are a few more facts for your enjoyment.

Size: Male 17 to female 24 inches tall, with a wingspan of 3 & 1/2 to 4 & 1/2 feet.They weigh 12 to 18 ounces.

Habitat: Northern Harriers are found in the open fields, farmland, and dunes of Grays Harbor.

Diet: These hawks eat what is available, mostly small mammals and birds. In spring and winter they eat a lot of voles. The female aggressively defends her feeding territory in non-breeding season.

Nesting: The courting male performs a series of up to 25 dives from a near-stall, and will even do multiple barrel rolls. In Washington, these courtship displays can be seen as early as late February. They nest on the ground in loose colonies with one male mating with up to five females in a season if there is enough prey in the spring. The male begins to build the flimsy nest in dense vegetation, and the female then finishes it to her satisfaction. She incubates 4 to 6 eggs for 30 to 32 days, and broods them for two weeks after they hatch, while the male provides the food for them. After two weeks the nestlings begin to walk around, and at 4 to 5 weeks they begin to make short flights around the nest area. At about 45 days of age, they begin to make sustained flights, and the parents begin feeding them in mid-air. The adults pass the food to the first fledgling to reach them, so competition for food compels them to learn to fly.

Migration: Northern Harriers are year-round residents in Grays Harbor.

Conservation Status: The population of Northern Harriers remains fairly stable in Grays Harbor thanks to the large areas of open grasslands, farmlands, and the beaches.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon