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Jun 20, 2017 11:33 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Our Owl-Like Hawk

Close up of the harrier’s long tail, long leg and sharp talons. MIKE BOTTINI
Jun 20, 2017 12:34 PM

While on a beach run in East Hampton Village recently, I caught sight of a large bird carcass in the wrack line. Although its mottled brown and white feather colors resembled that of our common immature gulls, something about its size and shape prompted me to stop and take a closer look.The head was hidden from view but its nearly foot-long, white and brown, banded tail and its equally long, slender legs tipped with sharp talons were quite visible and striking. Uncovering the head revealed the classic profile of a hawk. At first glance I thought I had stumbled across a Cooper’s hawk, our medium-sized accipiter that has become quite common in recent years. But the prominent white patch on the upper part of the tail did not look right.

Back home with a field guide I realized that I had stumbled upon a Northern harrier, also known as the marsh hawk (circus cyaneus). Its prominent white patch that I had always assumed was located on the upper, aft end of its body is actually found on the base of the tail.

This harrier is described as a very slender hawk with long legs and a long tail and an owl-like facial disk. The latter is shaped by stiff feathers and, as found among the owls, helps direct the sounds of potential prey to the ears. The specimen I examined was in poor shape after being tossed about in the surf and partially covered with sand on the beach, so this feature was not discernible.

The harrier not only resembles an owl in appearance but, unlike most hawks, it hunts like an owl, relying on its hearing as well as sight. Small rodents are the mainstay of its diet, with the meadow vole topping that list. It will also hunt for large insects, such as grasshoppers. Its preferred habitats for hunting are grasslands, prairies, marshes and other sites with low, thick vegetation. Here on Long Island, where we have very little grassland habitat left, it is most often found hunting over the upper salt marsh, dunes, and farm fields.

Its method of hunting is so distinctive that it is a very useful identification feature of this species in the field. Flying very low and weaving back and forth over the ground, the harrier glides with its wings held in a v-shape somewhat like a turkey vulture.

Many years ago I happened upon a male Northern harrier hunting along the edge of the salt marsh bordering Meadow Lane in Southampton Village. It was about an hour before sunset and the colors in the marsh, as well as that of the harrier itself, were vibrant in the late afternoon light. I watched the bird dancing over the marsh for some time, working from east to west until it disappeared around a bend. As I was about to pull off the shoulder, another bird of prey appeared from the east, also flying low and weaving over the marsh.

This was the owl equivalent of the Northern harrier in terms of habitat preferences, diet, flight and hunting technique: a short-eared owl. It moved much like the harrier that had passed by just minutes before. In my short watch of each, neither was successful in catching prey.

I recently learned that harriers gather in groups during the winter to roost on the ground, and they are sometimes joined by short-eared owls. Both also nest on the ground. The harrier’s flimsy nest is usually located in areas with very dense, low vegetation.

Where prey is very abundant, males will mate with up to five females in their respective territories, and provide each with food during the entire incubation period. They will also help feed the hatchlings. An interesting note on this breeding behavior is that nearly all 14 regularly polygamous birds found in North America breed in marshes or meadows.

This species was considered a common breeder in New York State until the mid-1950s. The exact cause of the subsequent severe decline in the population is not known but it paralleled the use of toxic pesticides, including DDT that was spread over their marshland habitat to reduce mosquitoes, and habitat loss. Between 1966 and 2014, the North American Breeding Bird survey documented a one-percent per year decline in the breeding population for a cumulative loss of 47 percent.

The 1980-1985 New York State Breeding Bird Atlas surveys confirmed harriers in 14 blocks on Long Island. The most recent surveys (2000-2005) confirmed breeding pairs in three. Today the Northern harrier is listed as a “threatened species” in New York.

Ironically, one of the largest remaining grassland habitats on Long Island—the 800 acres found on the vacant 2,900-acre Calverton property owned by the Town of Riverhead—is currently being considered for development. To learn more about efforts to protect this property visit www.calvertongrasslands.org.

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