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Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Northern Harrier

Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Northern Harrier

On an August walk in Cook County’s newest forest preserve, Horizon Farm on Sutton Road, I was surprised to see a large raptor floating low over one of the fields. Its size, shape, flight pattern and, especially, conspicuous white rump made its identity immediately apparent: a Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius). What surprised me wasn’t so much its presence in the Barrington area; harriers appear fairly consistently, though sporadically, especially during spring and fall migrations. What did surprise me was the timing. Northern Harriers – or Marsh Hawks, as they were once known – don’t usually show up predictably until September and October.

Watching a Northern Harrier hunt prey – “harrier” means persistent hunter – is a riveting experience. The bird skims the tops of plants growing in meadows, prairies, shallow marshes, dunelands. It rocks as it flies, seemingly weightless with its wings held high enough to describe a wide, shallow v – much like the flight of a Turkey Vulture but at ground level. I often think of the bird as an oversized butterfly, moving methodically over grassland, every so often turning adroitly to capture an unsuspecting meadow vole.

The face of the Northern Harrier is owl-like with piercing eyes and facial disks that make it especially keen of hearing and enable the bird to locate the small mammals that make up a large portion of its diet. The harrier has a smallish, sharp, hooked bill. It is slim compared to other hawks, with long wings and longish, barred tail. The giveaway field mark is the white patch just above the tail.

It’s easiest to recognize Northern Harriers when they are hunting prey at human eye level. Autumn walks on Phantom Prairie Trail at Crabtree Nature Center or at any of the large, grassy expanses at local forest preserves will offer the best local opportunities for spotting the species. One preserve that consistently offers good views of hunting Northern Harriers is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (south of Joliet) where they can almost always be spotted along with Short-eared Owls on November afternoons and early evenings.

I get particularly excited when I see an adult male Northern Harrier. It is smaller than the female and, while she sports brown mottled plumage, the male is gray on its back and very light below, with dark wing tips. He always strikes me as a ghost bird as he glides silently over grassland. I’ve never kept exact count but I’d guess that roughly one out of twenty harriers I see is an adult male.

Northern Illinois is right on the edge of the species’ breeding range. One harrier was recorded all summer long a few years ago at Poplar Creek Forest Preserve just to the south of Barrington. So the one I spotted at Horizon Farm could have been a local bird, possibly even a nesting one. But more likely it was an early migrant, one of vanguard of many more Northern Harriers that will be flying through our area in coming weeks. On autumn hikes in large, open meadows and grasslands, the appearance of a Northern Harrier never fails to inject a special and memorable thrill.

About Wendy Paulson

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles Wendy has authored in our Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.

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