For several weeks now, I’ve been seeing this bird swooping low and level over the northern parts of the park. Every time it passed, the Burrowing Owl in the nature area dove for the nearest burrow and stayed there until the danger passed. I knew from the flight pattern and glimpses of the wing that it was probably a Northern Harrier, but I could never get a photo. The sun was behind it and it moved too fast. Then photographer Phil Rowntree, whose work has frequently appeared here, got lucky. The bird perched for just a moment. Phil was there and ready, and squeezed off this shot. Beautiful! The image perfectly captures the owl-like face of this species. Its stiff facial feathers focus the sound on the bird’s ears, allowing it to hunt not only by its very sharp vision, but by exquisitely sensitive hearing that can pick up sounds of mice and voles scurrying in the underbrush. This individual is an adult female, according to raptor expert John Davis. The female is considerably bigger than the male. It’s a formidable raptor that can take mammals up to and including small rabbits, as well as other birds. It is easily capable of taking ground squirrels, but I have not seen that happen, yet. The Burrowing Owl is wise indeed to go deep when this feathered terminator passes overhead.
The Northern Harrier is native to North America. Unlike many other raptors, it builds its nest on the ground. This makes its brood especially vulnerable to other predators, including humans who take the land for agriculture or subdivisions. Harriers breed in the summer in the northern states and Canada and migrate to more temperate climates, such as ours, in winter.