Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier (also called the Marsh Hawk) is seen throughout the winter months on Little St. Simons Island. The only harrier found in North America, it spends its summers as far north as Canada, and returns to the southern US in the winter.

With a wingspan of 3.5 feet, the Northern Harrier is a long-winged and long-tailed hawk. They can be spotted flying low over the marshes searching for

prey such as small mammals, birds, lizards, or snakes. It’s thought that they use their sense of hearing just as much as sight in hunting.

The Northern Harrier can be picked out by its distinctive flight pattern. Its wings are usually held in a V-shape as it dips and dives just above the tops of the grass in open areas. While the Northern Harrier varies in coloration between juveniles, adult females, and adult males, it always has a characteristic white patch just above its tail.

This species is not on the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species List, but has been on the National Audubon Society’s early-warning Blue List of declining species since 1972.

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Naturalist Fact: Northern Harrier

Aside from the blooming Muhley grass and the huge swarms of tree swallows we see in the fall, another exciting seasonal indicator is the return of the Northern Harrier.  These hawks are relatively easy to identify as they swoop low over the marshes, with long wings and a long tail.  A white patch just above the tail is often visible.  Male harriers are a pale silver color, while the females are dark brown and significantly larger than the males.  Interestingly, we tend to see many more females than males on Little St. Simons Island. 

Harriers hunt for a variety of animals including small mammals, birds, and reptiles and even eat carrion occasionally.  Unlike many other birds of prey, these hawks have owl-like facial disks which help them use sound to locate prey.  They also have very soft feathers to aid in quiet flight. 

Their breeding range extends throughout the most northern states and into Canada, where they nest on the ground in dense grass or thick vegetation.  Most birds migrate and spend the winter throughout the southern U.S. and into Central America.  While they have experienced some declines in population, the harrier is not considered a species of high conservation concern.

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