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Northern harriers fly low over meadows while hunting. The females are predominately brown and are larger than the grey and black males. Both sexes have a bright white patch at the base of their tails, which makes them easy to identify from a distance.

There is a place in Lawrence Township—outside the Sourlands, but close by—with vast farm fields where every year in early spring northern harriers and short-eared owls put on a fabulous aerial show. They patrol the fields looking for meals just after dawn and again just before nightfall. These birds may have recently arrived from their winter homes and are hungry after their migration, but both of these raptors can be year around residents of New Jersey so maybe they are just getting ready for nesting season. What makes their show so special is that both the owls and the harriers are graceful fliers, but they have distinct flying patterns. The harriers fly low, in long swooping arcs, while the short-eared owls are more acrobatic in flight, sometimes making a loop when they change direction. Seeing them is always a treat, but seeing them together is really wonderful.

A harrier is a person or thing that brings trouble to others, and northern harriers are big-time trouble for voles, mice, other small mammals, frogs and toads, and large insects. They are the only hawk that nests on the ground. However they don’t actually build a nest; they lay their eggs on a tuft of grass or a mound of dirt, usually in a place with shrubs for cover. While northern harriers, like all raptors, have good eyesight, they are distinctive among hawks for their ability to hunt by listening for prey. Like owls, they have a disk of small feathers surrounding their faces, which directs sound to their ears. That, plus their characteristic low-flight pattern, allows them to hear the faint sound of small animals moving about on the ground.

While the female is sitting on her eggs or brooding her chicks the male hunts for food for his family. Often, when he returns with food he will call to his mate, who flies into the air, flips onto her back beneath the male, and catches in the air the food that the male drops.

It is hard for me to justify my affection for raptors when I know they are very efficient killers. They grab live prey in their sharp talons and if that doesn’t kill them the raptors might simply bite off their prey’s heads. But I love to see them, regretting only that they are fearful of humans, so I seldom get to see them up close. When I do get a closer look—most often in a photograph—I am thrilled by the magnificent fierceness of their eyes and hooked beaks; it unmistakably identifies them as killers. It may not be beautiful, but it is splendid.

By Jim Amon.