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Birds of the Western Slope Nov. 9, 2016

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Photo © Bill Schmoker Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

My cattails are in full "seed dispersal mode" and I delight in watching them. I drove up to the top of the hill east of Hart's Basin where I could see a bit of water at the far end of the reservoir. It's low, but I've seen it lower!

I've known the plant called "cattails" all of my life, but this season I've watched more closely and it's been worth my time. Now the breeze ceases and all is still. No fuzzy cattail seeds, but they're just waiting for the next puff of air.

I'm facing the south side of the reservoir, but there are cattail beds behind me, to the north. I can see pale brown-yellowish leaves and plenty of fuzzy cattail heads. And wait! There's an old friend -- it's a northern harrier! The white rump patch is very obvious as he raises from the cattail beds. Now he glides toward the east, circles and glides back to the first area. Vanished. Now I wait and watch.

Here he is again, coming up and gliding toward the inlet trees, but now to the north and then back east. What an elegant flyer! He seems to hang in the air and I'm thrilled that I know how he does that! Now he starts back to the first spot. A nest there? But it's too early. And I've yet to see a brown-looking bird that would be a female. I've read that they roost communally in the off season -- now that would be something to come across! And the females protect their hunting grounds from the males during non-breeding. These long tailed raptors fed on smaller creatures such as voles, frogs, snakes and insects.

Both sexes work to build the nest but the females incubate and brood the young who fledge within a month. As is often the case with raptors, the female is larger than the male. One theory is that she chooses a safer, smaller mate.

Other names of my bird include marsh harrier and in Europe the bird's known as a hen harrier (he'd give the hens some excitement), but the harrier (at less than a pound) really isn't big enough to harm them. The scientific name always intrigues me: Circus cyaneous from the Greek "kirkos" referring to a mythical hawk (sorry, no real circus!) and Latin "cyaneus" meaning dark blue.

Now my bird returns only to vanish again into the cattails. What a treat for me to see him. And the breeze's up again with cattail seeds flying everywhere!

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Surface Creek
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Birds of the Western Slope, Evelyn Horn
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