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Birdwatching: Harriers on the hunt and minding own business

By Dr. Madeline A. Kalbach

For the Observer

Published on January 1, 2018 9:17AM

The female northern harrier flies low over fields and wetlands in its search for mice, frogs, birds and other small prey.

Dr. Madeline A. Kalbach photos

The female northern harrier flies low over fields and wetlands in its search for mice, frogs, birds and other small prey.

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The male Northern harrier is pale gray. Even so its white rump shows up very clearly.

The male Northern harrier is pale gray. Even so its white rump shows up very clearly.

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Excellent ID markers for the red-tailed hawk are its rufous tail and dark belly band.

Excellent ID markers for the red-tailed hawk are its rufous tail and dark belly band.

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A red-tailed hawk.

A red-tailed hawk.

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Birding or wildlife watching in general in the Tarlatt area of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is always an adventure because something unusual or exciting often happens. Today was no exception.

A pale gray northern harrier came gliding across the field minding its own business as it foraged on the wing for a small mammal or small bird. It would take a rabbit or even a duck if one became available. When out of the blue from a snag, hidden from view, dove a red-tailed hawk right at the unsuspecting harrier. A few pale gray feathers flew, but the male harrier seemed unscathed by the red-tail attack as it veered off to the left to wend its way south along Tarlatt Slough. The red-tail, for its part rose high in the air and flew off to its hidden perch.

According to the scientific literature northern harriers are known for aggressive behavior toward larger raptors, but not against smaller raptors. It is likely that this is so because it is easier for the harrier to steal food from a smaller raptor.

It appears as though the northern harrier simply wandered into the red-tailed hawk’s territory, and harassment by the red-tail was enough to send the northern harrier packing.

Both raptors are residents of Tarlatt and more widely, on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and the Peninsula. The northern harrier generally hunts low over the grasslands and wetland areas of Tarlatt Slough. The red-tailed hawk, on the other hand, generally hunts from tall trees in or on the edges of fields, roadsides and open areas. Both raptors, however, like to forage over open fields so this behavior no doubt contributed to the conflict.

The most diagnostic identification markers for the northern harrier is a white rump and a face that resembles an owl. The most diagnostic feature of the Red-tailed Hawk is a red tail and a dark belly band on its white chest. Some Pacific sub-species of the red-tail are very dark or rufous in color, but the belly band is still usually visible. No matter what, though, the reddish tail is one of the adult bird’s best field marks.

If you are looking for a birding adventure, take a walk with binoculars in hand at Tarlatt of the South Bay Unit. You are sure to see some fascinating and entertaining bird behavior.







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