If osprey are representatives of the river, harriers embody the marsh.
With their wings in a V-shaped angle, northern harriers course low over the marshlands. Because they have such long tails and wings, the slim birds can fly with great control. They move slowly in the air as they tip in the wind, all the while keeping their owl-like faces pointed down in search of prey. With a sudden move, they drop down into the vegetation or shallow water to grab a mouse, reptile, amphibian, small bird or fish. The elegant-figured males are tawny, and the slightly larger females are silvery gray.
The name harrier means hunter; it has a military derivation and originally meant to harass. The birds were once known as marsh hawks because that is where they are found. But they also inhabit other open areas such as prairies and tundra.
Hawks employ a wide variety of hunting techniques; some species combine more than one approach to search for food. Generally, harriers do not hunt from fixed perches nor do they soar high in the air while scanning broad areas with hawk eyes. They course low and slow, barely above the tops of the marsh reeds and grasses. Harriers spend many hours a day in the search for a meal, sometimes covering hundreds of miles.
The disc shapes around their eyes, which give them their owl-like appearance, might also give the harriers an advantage in the hunt. The shapes are thought to act like funnels that focus the sounds made by small critters.
Harriers are wonderful to watch. If osprey are representatives of the river, harriers embody the marsh. They are present year round in the mid-Atlantic, but their numbers nearly double in October and November, when migrants from the north pass through. I pictured a heavy November sky at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and a harrier cruising the dry cattails while skeins of ducks dot the sky.
Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the Patuxent marshes are good places to see harriers and many of the other birds of fall. Explore by kayak or canoe.