Northern Harriers – A Sign of Spring

Not only is the calendar telling us that today (March 20th) is Spring Equinox, but nature too is showing us the seasons are changing. The first Tree Swallows of the year showed up at Burnaby Lake just over three weeks ago, and there are all sorts of signs of spring in our parks. From the blooming of the indian plum in the forests, to the peeping of tree frogs down at Burnaby Lake, all confirm what the birds are telling us – spring is here.

For me, one of the most exciting signs of spring is the return of the Northern Harriers to their nesting area in the meadows at the west end of Deer Lake. And just this past Friday (March 14) I saw the male harrier checking out his regular nesting area.

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Male Northern Harrier checking out its nesting territory prior to breeding

Not a great picture, but the bird was far out in the meadow. Below is a much better picture of the male harrier in flight. Jason Hung, who kindly let me use some of his photographs for this post (thank you, Jason), has much superior pictures of the birds than I can capture with my more basic camera gear. A lot of patience waiting for the birds to fly close-by is needed, and Jason’s patience and skill with a camera has certainly paid off. He’s managed to get some great shots over the past couple of years.

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Male Northern Harrier photographed at Deer Lake by Jason Hung

The fact that we’ve got harriers nesting at Deer Lake, is a real feather in the cap for Burnaby Parks – pun intended! We’re tremendously fortunate to have them nesting pretty much in the centre of the City because harriers need undisturbed wetlands or grasslands in which to nest and raise their young. Unlike many raptors, harriers nest on the ground, and as a result are very susceptible to disturbance from people and dogs. The Deer Lake birds arrived here about 10 years ago, and set up nesting territory in the park. As the park has got busier over the years with the increasing population around Metrotown, the pressure on the birds’ habitat has increased. At least once in the past few years, a dog killed a young harrier on the ground, but in most years the pair has successfully raised one or two young.

Meadow sign

This city sign is important protection for our ground-nesting Northern Harriers. Let’s watch and enjoy them from the nearby trails.

Now known as Northern Harriers, these birds were previously named Marsh Hawks and many readers may know them by the previous moniker. “Hawk” is a generic name applied to many raptors, but in the case of harriers it’s not a particularly apt descriptor.Compared to other North American raptors, harriers have a number of unique characteristics. Firstly, the males and females have strikingly different plumage; they are sexually dimorphic. As can be seen from the photos above, the males are grey backed, and mostly white underneath with black wingtips. The females, in contrast to the males, are mostly shades of brown above with buffy, streaked undersides.

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Female Northern Harrier. Photo: Jason Hung
Click to enlarge

Looking at the picture above, it’s possible to see that harriers have another interesting feature not found in other day-hunting raptors. They have facial disks like owls, which perform the same function for harriers as they do for the raptorial nightshift. They focus the sounds of prey to enable the capture of mice and voles, even when they may be out of sight in thick grasses over which the harrier is gliding.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that the males are polygynous i.e. they mate with more than one female, sometimes up to five. However, mostly they are monogamous or bigamous, and in all cases the males provide most of the food for both females and the young. Our male at Deer Lake has typically had two females to provide food for. The second nest is in a virtually inaccessible part of the park, and while the patch of habitat is smaller, it may be more protected from intrusion because of its isolation.

The provisioning of food for female and young by the male gives us the opportunity to see a very exciting and dramatic event. When the male returns to the incubating female sitting on the nest, he gives a whistling call, which is the signal for the female to get airborne. Once she’s up and flying she also calls insistently. The male, flying higher, drops the prey for the female below to pursue and to catch in mid-air. It’s a wonderful aerobatic display.

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Male above, female below with prey just released by the male.
Photo Jason Hung

When the young are flying, the adults will drop in prey for the young to catch in mid-air. Below, Jason once again captured the action. This time it’s the female making the aerial exchange with one of her young.

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Female to young prey exchange. The in-transit food is probably a Townsend’s vole.
Photo: Jason Hung

The next couple of months will provide many opportunities to observe the comings and goings of the Northern Harriers at Deer Lake. Keep your distance, and enjoy the show. Nesting starts in earnest in the next couple of weeks. Spring is definitely here.

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One thought on “Northern Harriers – A Sign of Spring

  1. Came through clearly. Fascinating about the food exchange. More to observe, as Bev would say. F

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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