During the time of living at the beach some miles north of my present home out in the woods, I was often drawn by the sight of pelicans and other birds that make their home along coastal waters, but I have never been what you would call a bird watcher, an enthusiast in camouflage clothing with binoculars and guidebook. My interest in birds has always been best described as dilettantish. That could be changing. In this new setting where birds of a dozen varieties fill the air with song and where as many as six or seven at once congregate on, under or near the feeder off my screened back porch, birds have become the most conspicuous and audible visitors to my backyard. In the past month I have seen so many redbirds, bluebirds, woodpeckers and hummingbirds that the sight has become humdrum.
In the past week I have begun to notice a different type of avian friend, soaring majestically out of the canopy of trees twice each day—in early morning and again at twilight. This one sings a different song and surely not one to soothe the ears of squirrels and other small mammals living in and around my backyard. The very vocal Northern Harrier hunts in those soft, quiet hours of early morning and twilight, sharp eyes focused on the wide expanse of grass so favored by squirrels, rabbits and mice.
Northern Harrier or Marsh Hawk (Circus cyaneus) is the name we in America give to the Hen Harrier, a bird of prey that winters in southern areas of the US, including Florida. A large bird, it is anywhere from 16 to 20 inches in height with a wingspan between 38 and 48 inches. It is a slender, medium-sized raptor with a long, barred tail and distinctive white rump, at close range showing an owl-like face. This characteristic is especially true in young birds. Unlike most raptors, there is a bigger difference in plumage between males and females. Females are brown above with varying degrees of brown and buff streaking below. From mid-distance the breast appears to be almost golden. Males are gray above with an unmarked lighter color below and black wingtips. Juveniles are brown above and orangish-brown below.
Because of an abundance of prey, the Marsh Hawk prefers moorland, bogs, prairies, coastal marshes, grasslands and swamps. It is the only hawk known to mate with not just one, but several females. The nest is built on the ground or on a mound of dirt or vegetation and is made of sticks, lined inside with grass and leaves. When incubating eggs, the female sits on the nest while the male hunts and brings food to her and the chicks.
They hunt primarily small mammals, preferring voles, cotton rats and ground squirrels. As much as ninety-five percent of their diet is comprised of small mammals, but other birds are hunted with regularity as well, especially by the males. Their preferred avian prey includes sparrows, larks, pipits, small shorebirds and the young of waterfowl. Diet is supplemented at times with frogs, reptiles and insects. Larger prey, such as rabbits and ducks are taken from time to time and it isn't unusual for the hawk to subdue this larger prey by drowning it underwater.
For the past week I eagerly await the arrival of this regal hunter each morning and early evening. She doesn't frighten easily, holding her perch on fence post or branch even at those times when I creep close to gaze at her through binoculars. Sitting for a time on a fence post, she occasionally jumps down to the ground and focuses a downward gaze on I can't guess what. Then it's back to the fence post or branch where she twists her neck around to stare in my direction for an unconcerned moment. After several minutes she lifts and swoops low over the stretch of grass, hoping I imagine to surprise a chubby squirrel scrabbling for acorns.