Northern HarrierOct. 14, 2007

The northern harrier is a slender hawk with very long wings, and during spring and fall hawk migration it is a somewhat uncommon visitor to State College, Pennsylvania. The harrier has a lovely Latin name: Circus cyaneus.

The problem, or my problem, with the northern harrier is that it is easy to mistake for another hawk, especially with a silhouetted view.

Northern harrier silhouetted against sky
  In the following photo, the harrier (on the left) with somewhat shortened wings and a fanned tail looks the very image of a Cooper's hawk. However, the very obliging red-tailed hawk (on the right) is approximately the same size (and how lucky I was to have the two hawks side by side!). Therefore, the left-hand hawk couldn't be a Cooper's hawk.
Northern harrier and red-tailed hawk
  The third view of the same hawk - the northern harrier - shows a little more color and pattern. From that point, it was more straightforward to identify it as a northern harrier, either a female or an immature.
northern harrier
  A "classic" identifier of the northern harrier is its white rump. A few other hawks also have a white rump, so without something else to go by (long wings or reddish body), identification is not straightforward.
White rump of northern harrier
  The reddish body is an identifier of either female or immature harriers. The male northern harrier is a silver gray hawk and bright white below. Last year I photographed my first (and thus far only) male northern harrier. The photo below is a composite of two images of the same bird.
Composite of two images - wingbeat of a male northern harrier
The wingtips look as if they were dipped in black ink.

Photo note: I used a Pentax *ist D, with the SMC 1000mm reflex lens (handheld), for these photos.

My Pennsylvania bird list

Look Out!   |   Contact