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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Some spring birds don’t wait for winter to end

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outdoors Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

The northern harrier is another of our early birds, often arriving before winter is quite over, as it did this year.

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The harrier is an open country bird characteristic of moist grasslands, often those grown rank without grazing or fire.

Harriers arrived on such a habitat northwest of Grand Forks last week, just about on time. I always expect the harriers by St. Patrick’s Day.

They don’t have a long trip. The harriers spend the winter just beyond the snow pack. That usually means the central Plains, beginning about at the northern border of Nebraska

The birds spend the summer months from the Great Plains as far north as the tree line in Canada and Alaska, so the term “northern” aptly names them.

Harriers are a worldwide family, and our northern harrier is the same species as the so-called “hen harrier” of Britain and northern Europe. Its range extends across Russia and Siberia, so this is another of the “holarctic” species, like the Bohemian waxwing and the common redpoll, which occur cross the northern latitudes.

This isn’t necessarily the species called “chicken hawk,” however. In my experience, that term is applied to almost any hawk, even though taking a chicken would strain any hawk’s ability. Chickens outweigh hawks by a pretty good margin.

Despite this confusion, harriers are fairly easily separated from other raptors. In fact, the species they most resemble is not a hawk at all, but the short-eared owl. Harriers and short-eared owls share diet, hunting technique and habitat.

The harrier is not an especially large bird, about the size of a duck, but much more streamlined. The body is sleek, and the wings are long and tapered.

A harrier’s flight pattern is distinctive, too. It rocks from side to side while coursing low over its hunting ground. This is called quartering, because the birds work back and forth across an area. They quite frequently come across the wet meadow behind my house in just this way.

Harriers are dimorphic, which means that the sexes can be told apart at a glance. Females are a rich chestnut color; males are gray with white under parts. The males have black wing tips, looking as if they’ve just skimmed a mud puddle or, perhaps, been dipped in a bottle of ink.

Both species have a distinctive white patch on the rump. This distinguishes them from any other hawk species, except rough-legged hawks. Rough-legged hawks are darker and much larger, with rounded wings that appear shorter in relation to the body, which is stockier than the harrier’s.

To distinguish between short-eared owls, be alert to the flight pattern. Short-eared owls progress with quick, choppy wing beats, unlike the rock-and-glide pattern that harriers employ.

Time of day will help, too. Short-eared owls are active at twilight. This makes them “crepuscular” in bird-speak. Harriers are diurnal, active in the daytime.

Like some other open country birds — horned larks, Sprague’s pipits and common snipe come to mind — harriers perform an aerial mating ritual. This takes two forms, one called “sky dancing,” in which the birds soar, circle and dive, often at bewildering speeds, pulling up just short of the ground.

The other is a food exchange. Males capture meadow rodents, carry them off and then drop them to females who take the prey in their talons. Perhaps this is a test of hunting skill, perhaps of maternal instinct. In either case, it helps cement the pair bond.

These activities can be seen on the grasslands in our area, where harriers remain fairly common nesting birds. Like all grassland species, though, they are becoming less common. There simply isn’t enough habitat to support as many harriers — and meadowlarks and other prairie nesters — as there once was.

Other signs of the advancing season:

Snowy owls are fewer than they were. The last I saw was early in the week on the same perch an owl had used much of the winter. It was there Tuesday evening, gone Wednesday morning.

Rough-legged hawks have moved into the area in big numbers. They’re northbound, to nesting areas in the Arctic. One birder reported a high count of more than 30 last week. On Thursday morning, I counted 11 along Grand Forks County Road 33 between Gilby and Manvel, N.D.

Despite the wintery weather, it’s time to be watching for bluebirds and meadowlarks, as well.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Call him at (701)780-1103, (800)477-6572 ext. 1103 or email mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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