Marsh Hawk, female

Birds: Marsh Hawk

It was getting to dusk on the Oregon Coast in Gearhart, when a raptor with a white rump flew by.  It was bigger and more graceful than I remembered from previous sightings. This September evening it flew right at my wife and me, before veering off toward the low shore pines along the dunes. My wife was amazed at its agility in the sky. Many years before, the specimen I had spotted was smaller and less spectacular. From my field notes, the bird’s mostly-gray upper body was dull on the horizon and the bold white stripe stood out as the only memorable markings. It rode the wind currents over the Canadian bog confidently like a falcon in the breeze.

This beautiful hawk is a raptor known as the Northern Harrier; and it is noted for its distinctive markings visible from a long distance away — it appears like a slim, long-tailed hawk gliding low over marshes or grasslands. It holds its wings in a V-shape and sports a bright white patch at the base of its tail. Up close it has an owlish face; the shape of its features helps it hear mice and voles beneath it, hiding in the vegetation. The gray-and-white males “play the marshes,” so to speak, and may mate with several females during the breeding season. The females are larger than the males and brown. The tail bands of the females are more distinctive to my eye than the males.

These unusual raptors have a broad distribution pattern across North America, as the map below illustrates.

Marsh Hawk, male

image of range map for Northern Harrier

Finding The Harrier

According to Birds of North America, to find this bird, you need binoculars ready from fall through spring. “Look for harriers in wide-open grasslands, marshes, or fields. You’re most likely to notice Northern Harriers when they are flying. Note the low, slow, coursing flight style, the bird’s V-shaped wing posture, and its white rump. During migration in the fall and spring, you can also see harriers high in the sky over mountain ridges and coastlines.”

Their range is all over North America, which makes it fun to see in nearly every state. The northern tier of states and Canada are the breeding grounds for this beautiful raptor.

  • Some Cool Harrier Facts
    • Northern Harriers are the most owl-like of hawks (though they’re not related to owls). They rely on hearing as well as vision to capture prey. The disk-shaped face looks and functions much like an owl’s, with stiff facial feathers helping to direct sound to the ears.
    • Juvenile males have pale greenish-yellow eyes, while juvenile females have dark chocolate brown eyes. The eye color of both sexes changes gradually to lemon yellow by the time they reach adulthood.
    • Male Northern Harriers can have as many as five mates at once, though most have only one or two. The male provides most of the food for his mates and their offspring, while the females incubate the eggs and brood the chicks.
    • Northern Harriers hunt mostly small mammals and small birds, but they are capable of taking bigger prey like rabbits and ducks. They sometimes subdue larger animals by drowning them.
    • Northern Harrier fossils dating from 11,000 to 40,000 years ago have been unearthed in northern Mexico.
    • The oldest Northern Harrier on record was a female, and at least 15 years, 4 months old when she was captured and released in 2001 by a bird bander in Quebec. She had been banded in New Jersey in 1986.