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Bird Bits: Northern Harrier mystery remains unsolved

Posted: June 6, 2013 - 11:01pm
Looking for a meal, a female Northern harrier swoops low in a meadow.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Looking for a meal, a female Northern harrier swoops low in a meadow.

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Tramping from Dredge Lake to Crystal Lake on a recent outing with the Beaver Patrol, fellow volunteer Mary Willson found a bird lying on the forest path. The dead bird was an adult female Northern Harrier. I cradled the bird, the size of a cat, about 10 to 15 pounds, in my arms. Brilliant yellow feet lay drawn up against a pale breast with brown streaking along her sides. The darkly barred tail trailed long across my forearm. Turning the body over revealed the telling white rump patch contrasted against dark and dusky brown. She was larger than her lighter-colored male counterpart would be.

Harriers are a sub-family of accipiters (think hawk). Harriers scientific genus name circus, comes from the circling movements of the male and female when courting. What a thrill it must be to watch the male during its rollercoaster courtship.

The female bird’s lemon yellow eyes were blank in a disk shaped face that looks and functions similar to an owl’s: Stiff facial feathers help direct sound to the ears. A harrier will rock its head a bit while hunting. Listening is as important as sight.

In early spring, a dark female Northern Harrier flew low with slightly v-wings over the open ground of the Mendenhall Wetlands. It searched for a vole or a wintering song sparrow. A combination of shorted, round wings and a long tail allows the Northern Harrier to pursue prey through woodlands, as well.

How did she come to die under the trees? Had her mate already begun their ground nest in some dense clump of vegetation? She would not set over a clutch of four eggs for a month, brood the hatchlings for several weeks more, watch them preamble and attempt to fly, nor join her mate in aerial feeding of the fledglings. The mystery may remain unsolved.

• Patricia Wherry is the director of education for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at education@juneau_audubon_society.org.

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