Photos: Bill Schiess | EastIdahoNews.com
A loud and angry “keee, keee” switched my attention from photographing some ducks as a pair of northern harriers appeared to be in an argument at Market Lake last week. It seemed like he was in trouble for something and she was not going to let him forget it.
Unable to get turned around to get them in my viewfinder, I began shooting blindly at the whirling ski-dancing birds and she was doing all the talking. I lucked out – two of the shots contained both birds in focus. I spent six hours over a five-day period trying to photograph these two as they flirted, hunted, defended territory and prepared to build a nest.
The male had picked out his territory a few weeks ago and has now started showing off to the available females. He does this with barrel rolls and roller coaster flights, where he goes high in the air and then free falls.
Included in this activity are gifts of sticks, grass and even food to his intended mate. All these activities are called “sky dancing” and the wedding is completed when the female accepts food from the handsome devil.
The male chases off other males as they try to horn in on his territory and/or his intended mate while the female tries to chase off the strange ladies. But northern harriers are the only known polygamists in the raptor world and males may try to collect two to five mates. This is known as “communal breeding.”
It is easy to tell the two genders apart as the females are much larger than the males and have a different color pattern. While males have a dark gray head and pale body plumage, the female has buff underparts with dark brown streaks and barring on her body and tail.
Their scientific and common names tell us a lot about this marshland hunter. Circus cyaneus refers to their habit of flying or hunting in circles while “harrier” refers to their plundering, harassing nature.
Unlike most hawks, harriers nest on the ground in the same areas inhabited by short-eared owls. Often, the two species can be seen hunting and engaged in aerial displays and even battles over territory. So far this season, the owls have not made an appearance to create competition for the hawks.
Said to have an “owl-face,” the facial disk is actually ears allowing for directional hearing. Harriers hunt by sound as much as by sight, while most other hawks hunt mostly by sight. Soft feathers and slow, low flight patterns make for quite effective hunting. They also have the ability to hover over intended prey before a quick and deadly dive.
Several years ago I stumbled upon a harrier nesting site only 300 yards from a sharp-tailed grouse lek. Several times I watched them attack the lek, but never saw them successfully bag a grouse. I observed the male with mice, snakes and small birds as he took them to feed the nesting female and later, their chicks.
Last week I counted seven males and 12 females on the west side of Market Lake and windy days helped me to get pictures of them. As they hunted and engaged in their dating rituals, the wind would catch them, blowing them near me as I watched. The other place we see a lot of them is at Camas National Wildlife Refuge, but they do not come as close to a parked vehicle there as at Market Lake.
Want an exciting morning? Go to one of those places, park your vehicle and watch as pairs of harriers engage in darting and swooping while hunting or playing together.
Update on swans and snow geese
Most of the swans have migrated north while about half of the snow geese can be still be found in Osgood, Market and Mud Lakes and Camas NWR. The ponds at Camas are filling, which will add to the excitement after the birds find the filled ponds. Most of the ice is off the ponds at Market Lake and are filling with ducks and geese with sandhill cranes in the marshes.
A quick identification statement: snow geese have black tips on their wings and swan’s wings are completely white. Those big winter “snow geese” we hear about are the Trumpeter swans, not snow geese.
For me, going out to watch nature is a great way to “socially distance” from others and still have a great time. At this time I travel alone or with my wife as I enjoy the great outdoors.