The Other Raptor

Who Am I

What is the most iconic bird of the Inland Bays? Most of us would say the osprey or the bald eagle – the commanding predators of the water that have become symbols of the coast. But there is another raptor that I think completes this estuarine avian trifecta…

It stands (or, rather, flies) apart from these famous fish eaters. It is not so loud about its territory like the osprey and it is not so proud and regal as the soaring bald eagle. It has its own behaviors that are thrilling to see, but around the Inland Bays, it’s most often seen gliding low and silent over winter marshes. Care to take a guess?

If you guessed “northern harrier” – you’re right! Personally, it has always been one of my favorite birds!

Credit: Doug Racine/USFWS
Credit: Doug Racine/USFWS (


Harriers (also known as “marsh hawks” or “hen harriers”), are easy to spot because of the big white spot on their rump, which is easily seen as they fly – on the hunt over the saltmarshes along our Bays.

Sometimes they seem to be careening at low altitude, with their wings held in a V and flying almost out of control. But somehow they always keep it together, hunting without making a single sound that would reveal their menace to the hidden rodents and sparrows in the marsh grass below.

The northern harrier also has a distinctive facial disk of feathers (much like an owl’s) that helps to concentrate the sounds of their prey directly into their ears. And once they think they’ve found something to eat below, they will hover over the spot while flapping their wings to flush the animal out from the grass. Then, they can drop down on it with their sharp talons.

Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS (
Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS (
Credit: Dan Pancamo (

But perhaps the most fascinating feature of the northern harrier is this: if you observe them long enough, you might see a sky dance!

In this amazing courtship display, a male flies in a wild and wide-amplitude sine wave going up and down, up and down, occasionally rolling midair – wing over wing. It is one of the marvels of nature that occurs every year, but that most often goes unnoticed by us preoccupied humans.

The various habitats found around Inland Bays watershed support an incredible amount of birds! When looking out over the Bays’ expanse and spotting a bird like the northern harrier, I have never failed to find of wonder, reverence and peace.


Hen harrier ‘skydance’ from The RSPB on Vimeo.


Posted Under: Staff Blog