Back in January 2010, Amber captured some absolutely stunning photos of a female northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) in flight. Having visited Oak Point Park & Nature Preserve in Plano around sunset one evening and having discovered herself in the right place at the right time to watch this fantastic bird as it hunted the open prairie, Amber walked away with reason for a major happy dance.
Northern harriers can be found throughout the DFW Metroplex during winter, though their rather finicky approach to hunting grounds makes it necessary to find the wide open fields they prefer. I found Amber’s luck quite alluring and immediately made plans to visit Oak Point so I could try for my own pictures of this gorgeous and unique raptor.
Mixing the facial disc of owls with the body and techniques of hawks, harriers are unique amongst North America’s raptors. They are not kites, falcons, hawks or eagles, and they are not owls either. They are as unique in the North American raptor world as are ospreys. I just had to get some photos.
I sat at the top of the hill and watched as a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) impaled its breakfast. The temperature remained below freezing, yet a clear blue sky meant plenty of sunshine to keep me warm as I awaited my opportunity to see the harrier. Then it happened.
Way the hell at the bottom of the hill, some 80 yards/meters from my location, I saw the bird sweep through just above the grass. Most of my view was obstructed as the bird remained close enough to the ground to be behind the grass and below the hill for the majority of its pass. Nevertheless, I watched as the raptor swept through, made a turn, and departed in the direction from which it came.
See the bird in the center of the image? Just above the grass? That minuscule white spot that could well be a smudge of dirt on the lens?
Yet something stood out, something that caught my attention and screamed for a closer look. It was immediately clear to me that this was not the same bird Amber had seen. So I quickly reviewed the few poor photos I’d taken and realized, much to my surprise, that I had photographed a male northern harrier, not a female. Here’s a crop:
Given Amber’s experience, that meant a pair of the birds was hunting the park. What a grand opportunity indeed!
Now if only I could get down the hill and be in place before one of the birds came back through. So I rushed, looking every bit as graceless as I dared in public, and I reached the bottom of the vast open field and found a spot where I could sit comfortably. And I waited.
Every manner of bird filled the air around me, from bluebirds to blackbirds to sparrows to hawks and falcons, and even an owl was forced momentarily into the open by a marauding band of jays. I enjoyed the show for almost two hours before my chance came.
Way the hell at the top of the hill—pretty much where I’d been sitting before—a harrier swept through. The bird leisurely soared above the dry grass, making comfortable turns this way and that. And again about 80 yards/meters away from me.
See it just left of center? Near the top of the treeline? That tiny brown spot that could be dust on the lens?
But wait a minute! Something seemed different about this bird. So I quickly reviewed the pictures in the camera. Ack! It was the female. Here’s a crop:
Damn it! I was being mocked by these two birds. It was a husband-and-wife team of tormentors.
I gave chase. After making it to the top of the hill, I followed in the direction the female had traveled. That’s when she burst from behind a motte—at the bottom of the hill!—and vanished back across the street where the two seemed to be when they weren’t in the park.
Over the next four hours, this process repeated. Basically, one of the birds would sweep through every hour or two, but they always came through on the opposite side of the prairie from where I was standing.
Eventually I tired of being mocked and went on my way, choosing to spend a few hours meandering along the various trails offered by Oak Point. I left the harriers to frustrate someone else.
And unlike Amber, I did not do a northern harrier happy dance that day. Because I will not be mocked!