Not Exactly Perfect

For the past couple of weeks, just around 2:00 PM, I see it. At first, it’s just a glint of white moving quickly across the pasture that stands behind my yard and the pond meadow – a good 700 feet from where I sit at my desk. I see it soaring just above the golden colored, spent grass – moving south to north. It disappears behind the massive Ponderosa Pine trees, and sometimes I will catch another quick view as it continues northwards and behind the stand of Osage Orange Trees that separates our yard from the pond meadow.

Quite often, I see it again flying back to the south, again very close to the earth, as it sails on its long wings that are tipped in black. The brilliant white of it’s chest and under wings flash as it moves – the telltale markings of a male. It’s a Northern Harrier. It comes to hunt over our fields, and based on the frequency of its visits I suspect it is quite successful.

Unlike the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks with which I am more familiar because they are year-round residents, the Harrier has a distinctive, almost owl-like head and a striking hunting style. When it spots a meal it hovers with those exceedingly long wings pulled up in a V shape to keep it steady in one position. It’s quite remarkable to me.

The winter weather and work life have kept me from traveling about the property for weeks. But, that Harrier has still entertained me by flying directly over our backyard – even when our dogs are exercising outdoors. Truly, I’ve become quite familiar with the bird and its comings and goings. I know, for example, not only when it typically arrives but I also know that its destination after hunting here is to the southwest, which is the direction I see it depart.

I thought about how wonderful it would be to get some great images of the Harrier hunting the pasture, but I knew that was probably outside of my aptitude as an amateur photographer. I simply could not fathom both being able to keep the small image of a fast moving bird within the frame and more so, getting and keeping it in focus while tracking its movement. I thought that the brilliance of this bird would remain merely in my mind’s eye and memory.

A couple of days ago I went for a jaunt for the first time in a long while. I knew that the Harrier would probably be around, as it was just about the time I usually saw him arrive. But, I went to the south end of the pond rather than where he would probably be hunting. I am still trying to get a good image of the Swamp Sparrows that hang out around the pond and, now with the foliage dead and gone I have a better chance of getting the shot. It was a better bet than trying and failing to film the Harrier. I sat by teh pond for a while. I didn’t see or hear the Swamp Sparrows, but I saw the Northern Harrier soaring across Jaye’s Pasture of the far other side of teh pond. It was a long way off, but I was able to watch his amazing flight, his incredible hovering, and on a few occasions his drop to the ground in the tall grassed where, if he was lucky, he caught what he was seeking.

I toyed with the idea of moving closer. Maybe I would be lucky. Maybe he would stick around. Maybe I could get his image in the boundaries of the view finder. Maybe. I determined a path that I could take to remain fairly hidden until I reached the edge of Jaye’s Pasture. And, although there was little chance to get a photo, I still felt fortunate that I could get a closer look at the remarkable bird.

I stayed low, along the pond’s edge, to hopefully hide my arrival, albeit I am quite cognizant that a hawk that hunts little mice that weighs less than 50 gm / 2 ounces can probably see a woman in a golf cart approaching from white a ways off. Pair that with the fact that Harriers actually use their sense of hearing as well as sight to catch their dinner, and I assumed I wasn’t as stealthy as I hoped. Nonetheless, I chose to remain in the shadows of the massive pine trees that sit just outside of Jaye’s pasture, to limit the bird from being scared off by my presence.

Then, not more than five minutes after I arrived, I saw him. He was flying directly towards me. I aimed my lens and held down the shutter. I had no clue if I captured anything more than a blur. But, to my sheer joy, I actually caught the Northern Harrier with enough clarity to, well, know it’s a Harrier. The photos are not National Geographic worthy, and I suppose even most amateur photographers might question why I would even post them on my blog. But, I’m quite content with the pictures – even if it was overcast, the camera was unsteady, and I can’t see anything close to the glint in the bird’s eyes. For me, they are shareworthy.

In the third and forth photos below the bird has begun to hover over prey that it has spotted. You can see it looking downward. I did catch hovering behavior, but those photos are just a bit too hazy to be worth adding here.

In the last photo, above, the Harrier is gaining altitude from the lower hunting zone just over the top of the grass, and he’s flying off. It’s hard to pick him out of the background. Look for the “seagull” in the middle of the image. That’s what I think the Harrier looks like from that angle – with the white belly and black tipped wings! The females do not have a distinct white belly, but rather sport a more pale, streaked under-color.

I hope you enjoyed these less than perfect photos of an absolutely perfect bird.

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