Sunday, February 3, 2013

Northern Harrier, Whitewater Draw

Heat wrinkles rose from the desert floor and the low winter sun took some sting out of the air, but a chilly wind was blowing.  When I spotted the female Northern Harrier, I jumped out of the truck without my jacket.  She appeared alone out of the east to patrol this part of her Chihuahuan Desert territory.  She was hungry and hunting. Somewhere near Whitewater Draw…well south of Tombstone…a day away from Tucson and touching Mexico, her territory could be a hundred miles long and hundred miles wide, but out here that’s still nowhere.

With hopes of surprising a bird, a mouse, a lizard or something equally delicious, she patrolled…low and slow, back and forth.  She may have been familiar with this section of desert because she repeated the same pattern several times, as if she’d been lucky here before.  This was not a casual flight, she was hungry…something needed to die today to satisfy her.   

Able to change direction instantly, she dropped down often, but came up empty quite often, too.  

She took some interest in my presence, but only casually. I felt I wasn’t interfering with her hunting and she seemed comfortable with our 400-foot separation. I was as close as I could expect to get.

Flying over foraging birds in the tall grass, she panicked the flock, but made no attempt to catch one.  A bird meal was not to her liking today.

Male Northern Harrier,
Christopher Columbus Park, Tucson

CORRECTION: From John O'Donnell, 
"It sure looks to me like you have a 
Peregrine Falcon
 perched in that telephone pole
 (vs. a male Northern Harrier)."
Thank you for the correction, John.

The male northern harrier looks considerably different than the female.  He has a grey head, white breast and is much lighter overall.  He’s smaller too.

After several passes over the tall grass directly in front of me, she spotted something…dipped down and came up lucky.  Flying away to dine in peace, she had a mouse…hardly a meal…maybe a snack…finally something.

Carefully watching her from behind was a Loggerhead Shrike.  Not foolish enough to steal from a Northern Harrier, he watched her as she struggled in the wind to hold on to both the branch and the mouse.  If there was to be a mouse fumble, I suspect the Loggerhead Shrike would try to recover it.

She carefully consumed Minnie Mouse…not a tidbit lost. But not satisfied by that tiny meal, she was off for another in minutes.   Displaying the distinctive white rump of all Northern Harriers as she left, she banked right into a cool desert breeze and lifted up out of sight. There had to be a bigger, fatter, more flavorful mouse out there somewhere.