Creature Feature

A Gray Ghost

By Wayne Bierbaum

I love taking photos of birds of prey. Hawks, eagles, falcons, kites, owls, and harriers are frequently my prime targets on my outings to wildlife areas.

Harriers are a little frustrating to try to photograph. They will appear to fly in a predictable pattern and right when I am setting up for that perfect photo, they will break the pattern and fly away or pop up behind me. Many times I have been on a wildlife drive and as I go around a corner, a harrier will be sitting on a post or a muskrat mound but on the right hand side of the road. I cannot take a photo through the windshield and as I slowly pull forward, the bird will take off. The only time I have been able to get a photo of one on the ground was when I walked in a snowy ditch and then used a tree to sneak up on one sitting in snow (the photo above).  

Winter is the best time to find these amazing birds. A few harriers will nest in Maryland but most have migrated here to spend the winter in our marshes and grasslands, where they will hunt for rodents and small birds. They are so commonly found in marshes that their original name was the marsh hawk but because they so different from hawks, they have been reclassified as northern harriers. 

They spend their summers and raise a family in the grasslands and marshes from the northern Midwest and into the far reaches of Canada. In winter, they can be found in Florida and Central America. A few years ago, I saw one flying over the marshes in Costa Rica. They are so attached to grasslands and marshes that they are they only bird of prey that makes a nest on the ground out of grass. That is one of the attributes that make them different from hawks.

Something else that is distinctive from hawks is the way they hunt. Hawks are sight predators as are most daylight hunting birds of prey. Owls have good hearing but also great night vision. Northern harriers have good daytime vision and excellent hearing. They hunt by listening for prey.

Their face looks like an owl’s with a sound-collecting shape. To find their prey, they slowly glide low over the grasses, tilting and sweeping side to side, as they listen for movement underneath. When they hear something stirring in the grass, they will hover and then drop on the meal or fly past and turn around and then drop.  

Northern harrier males are gray and white and known as the Gray Ghosts. The Gray Ghosts are very striking to see and they seem to be much less common than the brownish females but that may be because juveniles are also brownish. The difference between the adult female and the juvenile birds is in the color of the eyes. Adult birds have a yellow iris while juvenile males have a greenish iris and juvenile females have a dark brown iris.  

Northern harriers have another distinction from hawks in that they are polygamous. A male harrier may have up to five females that he is mated to and brings food to each nest. That is a busy bird.   

I have seen northern harriers at many sites with grasslands such as Sands Road Park, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Blackwater NWR, Bombay Hook NWR, Prime Hook NWR, Assateague Island and the marshes around Elliot Island.