It Always Pays to Look at Raptors

By Bernard Foy
February 2009

As I drove along Pajarito Road, a large bird rose up along the canyon edge, being buffeted by a strong southerly wind. "Red tail," I thought immediately. One of the resident birds of Pajarito Canyon, probably. This deep and picturesque canyon of the Pajarito Plateau, despite being marred in a few places by development, is home to one of our most common raptors, and possibly several pairs. It is a rare day when I drive along the road and do not see one of these regal birds, usually peering down from a high perch on a power pole at potential meals scurrying in the pinyon-juniper-oak scrub. Today's bird was having a hard time maintaining level flight while it soared, because the wind was stiff, near mid-day early in a cold December. Something didn't look quite right, though: the wings were oddly shaped, and the expected orange color on the tail was not coming into view. I pulled the car over to the shoulder and grabbed my emergency binoculars from the glove compartment. Sure enough, the tail was far too long, and as the bird banked with its brown upperparts in view, a bright white patch appeared on the rump: the diagnostic mark of the Northern Harrier.

Hmm, I thought. I can't remember seeing this raptor in Los Alamos County before. Later, I checked two listings for other reports. The New Mexico Ornithological database has no records at all for the county, and ebird lists only a few old records. (You can google the two names and quickly find these extremely useful databases for yourself, which I greatly encourage.) There isn't much suitable habitat for this raptor in the county. It was once called "Marsh Hawk" in reference to its devotion to wet, grassy places with tall vegetation in which rodents can prosper. (It took time for Americans to wisely adopt the British name that distinguishes it from the true hawks.) Usually, one finds the Harrier flying low and slow over a marsh, with wings in a strong dihedral (upward V shape). When a Harrier is flying high, it can look like a completely different bird. I once saw one glide overhead at a hawk watch in the mountains, and its wingtips were gathered into sharp points like a falcon. A long period of puzzlement eventually gave way to the right identification.

So what was she doing in Los Alamos in December? As Roger Tory Peterson is reputed to have said, "Birds have wings & they go places." Harriers are regular on the Espanola Christmas count, where a few good marshes and grassy fields remain, but not in large numbers. Perhaps this one was traveling the river corridor, and a gust of wind turned it up canyon, which it followed out of curiosity. Another clue comes from Pete Dunne's Hawks in Flight, where we read that they "have the longest migration period of any North American raptor." And why is it called Northern, anyway? The answer is that two similar birds inhabit South America: the Cinereous Harrier and the Long-winged Harrier, neither of which make it north of Panama. If you really like to look at harriers, though, travel to Africa: five species!


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