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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Spring may have surprised migrating birds in the Red River Valley

Harriers court on the wing, with birds flying side by side, then engaging in quite complicated aerial maneuvers.

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Northern harrier.
Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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Mike Jacobs.jpg
Mike Jacobs.
Tom Stromme

GILBY, N.D. – This was not a good week for birding. Nevertheless, there were birds about.

My pick for bird of the week is the northern harrier, a species I often encounter along Grand Forks County Road 33, the usual route from our place west of the small town of Gilby to the big city of Grand Forks. The harrier appeared as I was racing to get home before the storm.

There were three in all, at separate places along the route. Harriers are not especially chummy, outside the pair bond, of course. All were males, not surprisingly. Males seem to migrate ahead of females. This may allow them to choose and defend territory and be ready to start the business of reproducing the species.

This is serious business for male harriers. They are polygamous. Three mates are common, perhaps even usual, and as many as seven have been reported.

Harriers differ between species. Males are overall a pale gray color. Females are brown and heavily streaked. Both display a prominent white area on the rump, a field mark that clinches identification.

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These birds also have a distinctive flight pattern. They appear to totter from side to side – but with a certain grace. They often fly quite low to the ground, coursing over the top of standing grass. This brings them within easy distance of prey species, such as meadow voles, which form a large part of their diet.

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Harriers court on the wing, with birds flying side by side, then engaging in quite complicated aerial maneuvers. This courtship flight is a fixture of spring mornings in open country. One memorable morning a decade ago, I watched courting harriers while listening to sharp-tailed grouse doing their courtship dance.

Harriers are fairly common open country birds, though they are only occasional in the heavily cultivated areas of the Red River Valley. In the swathe of grassland bordering the valley – including the area where Suezette and I have our place – the birds are regular and in some years abundant.

They likely compete with short-eared owls, denizens of the same habitat. Unlike harriers, which occur in numbers every year, the short-eared owls are irruptive, here some years and not in others. Short-eared owls have been noted frequently this spring – but early spring numbers don’t predict nesting birds.

To my eye, the harriers are elegant birds. They have a knack for catching and riding the wind that seems to sweep them along. This is what was happening Tuesday afternoon, when the wind was blowing from the southeast, bringing moisture.

The northern harrier is a circumpolar bird. Its counterpart in Europe is known as the “hen harrier,” a species that sometimes pops up in English literature. The harrier clan consists of 13 species distributed widely around the globe. Harriers of one species or another occur on every continent except Antarctica.

It’s impossible to know whether the harriers I saw this week were surprised by the storm. Weather can be both friend and foe to migrating birds. Such ground-loving species, including meadowlarks, must be encountering quite a bit of weather-related stress this week.

The juncos, also ground-lovers, do not seem phased, however. They are moving across 13 inches of snow with their usual flighty aplomb. Junco numbers have increased steadily. I counted about 50 skittering over the snow on Wednesday morning.

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Another storm-time visitor was a mourning dove, an early arrival, it seems to me, and a surprise since I almost always hear the arriving mourning doves before I see them. Mourning doves have delicate feet. Those that try to overwinter here often succumb after their exposed feet freeze.

One species that has been hanging around our place failed to appear during the storm – the American robin. Up to 10 of them were spread out on the lawn Monday afternoon. I haven’t seen them since. My guess is they’ve retreated to cover in the evergreens, where they can find protection from the worst of the weather.

None of these species counts as the most numerous at our feeder array. That title goes to the red-winged blackbird. A couple of them were at a feeder at dawn Wednesday. As I typed at 10 a.m., at least 50 had settled into a tree in the backyard. From its branches they made foraging trips to the feeders.

These are males. Like harriers, the males tend to arrive ahead of females. Unlike harriers, however, they come in flocks. And they’re hungry, which means I’ll have to dig out the snowshoes and tromp through the snow to fill the feeder.

Like the harriers, I was pretty confident that spring had really arrived. I put the snowshoes away two weeks ago.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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