Hawk on Ice

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

February 20, 2012

It was a foggy and rainy morning, and I swung out by the lake before I had to go south of the ridge for a meeting.  Most of the ice had melted, but there was still a large shelf of ice blown against the north shore, and on that ice, there were two piles of feathers. Feeding over the larger pile  stood a Peregrine Falcon.

It is a general rule of wildlife photography that, if you really want to see something amazing, just leave the camera at home. Better yet, leave your binoculars home.

I didn’t have time to go home and get binoculars, much less get the camera, come back and take pictures, and still get to my meeting. Instead, I stopped off at the park headquarters to tell the naturalist; he was not there.

So I called a wildlife photographer friend and told him, but he was nowhere nearby–and he has a day job–so he couldn’t come out to get pictures.

So, I left…but there were a couple of details that bothered me: the bird seemed awfully brownish, and there was this long, egg-yolk yellow leg. Now, at certain points in their development and from certain angles, a Peregrine might appear brownish. And that yellow leg, maybe that belonged to the duck. After all, Peregrines used to be called Duck Hawks,1 and there is a large population of Mallards at the lake.

I really wanted a photo of that bird, so I postponed my meeting, went home and got the camera, and came back to get the shot that would establish a record for the park. I may not have had binoculars, but I’ve got good eyes and, after all, that executioner’s-hood head pattern of the Peregrine–unmistakeable.

Wrong again.

Northern Harrier

Not a Peregrine Falcon, not even a falcon

It was the raptor formerly known as a Marsh Hawk, the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)–they have long, egg-yolk yellow legs. It was a female; you can tell because they are brownish. The males are grayish (and slightly smaller).  They are neither common nor rare in these parts in the winter, but they are normally associated with large grassy meadows or marshlands where they hunt by coursing back and forth, hovering into the wind whenever some movement–or noise–in the grass catches their attention, and dropping like a stone to catch small mammals.

To most folks, a Harrier is a fighter aircraft. The military likes to name fighter planes after birds of prey,  the U.S. F15 Eagle, F16 Fighting Falcon, and F22 Raptor, and Great Britain’s Hawker Sea Hawk for example,. Back in the 50s, Great Britain came up with the idea of a Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (V/STOL) fighter jet that would not be limited to operating from large, developed air bases. They came up with the “jump jet” concept; a jet that could hover. They named it for one of the few Euorpean birds of prey that could hover–the Harrier2  Today the Harrier is primarily used in support of maritime forces, where it can provide jet fighter capability off of capital ships smaller than aircraft carriers.3

A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II+ hovers over the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4) as it prepares to land on Feb. 15, 2005. The Harrier is a high performance, single-engine, single-seat, Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (V/STOL) attack aircraft. This Harrier is attached to Marine Attack Squadron 223, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.   DoD photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew King, U.S. Navy. (Released)

A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II attached to Marine Attack Squadron 223, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. DoD photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew King, U.S. Navy. (Released)

I finally got around to letting folks know that I had completely bonked the ID on the hawk. In speaking with the park naturalist. I learned that the two piles of feathers were actually dead Canada Geese that had been lying on the ice for several days. This is interesting because I wasn’t aware that Harriers fed on carrion. It was also a most un-Harrier-like place, a small frozen lake sandwiched between two forested ridges.

As to that unmistakeable pattern on the head, I have no idea how I got that so wrong–inasmuch as my only other excuse would be advancing age, I choose to blame the heavy fog. Ironically, the Harrier’s facial pattern is quite distinctive, and the owl-like feather structure contributes to the hawk’s ability to hunt by sound, like an owl and unlike any other North American hawk that I am aware of.

Northern Harrier

Norther Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

  1. At some point during my childhood, American ornithologists developed Euro-pretensions and changed the common (and descriptive) names of many of our birds of prey: Sparrow Hawks became Kestrels, Marsh Hawks, Harriers, Duck Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Pigeon Hawks, Merlins, etc. []
  2. The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) also hovers at times; however, in Europe it is called the Rough-legged Buzzard, and I suspect that the fighter pilot fraternity would have objected to naming the aircraft the AV8  Rough-legged Buzzard. It lacks martial effect.  There was also a Kestrel variant (Kestrels also hover) back in the 60s. Note that there is only one species of Harrier in the United States, but there are four in Europe: Montagu’s Harrier, the Western Marsh Harrier, the Pallid Harrier, and the Hen Harrier; the Hen Harrier is the same species as our Northern Harrier. []
  3. Harriers are currently in use by the British, Indian, Thai, Italian, and Spanish navies, and the United States Marine Corps. []

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