It was a sparkling early spring morning at Point Mouillee – the kind of day that drives the final nails into winter’s coffin. The shallows of the Huron River mouth were bustling with avian life.
A dozen or so Lesser Yellowlegs were probing the silt for tidbits. They nervously bobbed and launched into short twittering flights. They are animated little creatures – always in a rush to get back to where they started. A few paused to bask in the morning sun and one even allowed itself to doze while balancing on one leg.
The energy of the Yellowleg cluster was matched by a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls. These dainty gulls were also walking the shallows in search of prey (minnows) but due to their short legs they were dragging belly feathers. A number of the birds displayed their breeding colors – or, in this case – their stark combination of inky black head, gray back, and white body. Other birds, like the one pictured here, were still in winterized garb with gray pates and prominent black “ear” spots. Napoleon was not among them.
Waterfowl of the duck kind were everywhere. Spastic mini-flocks of Blue-winged Teal (see above) darted back and forth along with Shovelers, Bluebills, Mallards and Coots. And the muskrats were busy doing what muskrats are always doing. They were eating tender aquatic plants and swimming about through the muddy waters. Although most of the aforementioned birds will move on, the Mouillee muskrats remain to swim and eat and swim and….
A pair of slow beating wings hovered over all this action in the form of Northern Harriers. These lanky birds of prey are also a year-round feature of the marshes. They will prey upon muskrats and duck but make most of their living off voles (as well as frogs, snakes, small birds, and even crayfish). The appearance of these two birds did nothing to alarm the yellowlegs or gulls.
The Northern Harrier is found across the globe and is as common in the reed marshes of England as in the cat-tail marshes of North America (which are becoming reed marshes just like their European counterpart). Derived from the old-English word “to harry, plunder, or ravage” the common name is also oddly applied to track athletes and to rabbit chasing dogs. They do plunder rodent populations but do it because they have to – not because they seek treasures. The genus name Circus is applied to all the world’s harriers and this name makes a bit more sense in that it refers to a circle – as in circling hawks.
Harriers are easy to identify when in flight. They glide low over the marsh grasses with their wings held at a low dihedral angle. When in sustained glide they rock side to side like giant Monarch butterflies. The wing tips are swept back and pointed, the head small and blunt, and the tail is long and rectangular. Above all, or I should say behind all, they display a white rump patch which is visible from a great distance away.
This pair were probably both females, or at the very least immature birds, due their dark coloration. Males are ghostly grey while the youngsters and females are dark. Later one of them revealed a set of yellow eyes and proved to be a female.
The birds split up when one continued across the river while the other broke off and descended to the ground as if capturing some hapless meadow mouse on the dike. There it proceeded to rip asunder whatever was held between its sharp talons. They don’t often allow for close approach out here on the open marsh, so it was a treat to be treated to a close look.
Up close, Harriers prove to be very different from other hawks. They have extremely long legs (maybe the reason track runners are called harriers?), small owl-like heads, and dramatically curved beaks. The facial features are explained by the fact that they hunt using a combination of sight and sound. Like owls they use facial discs to listen for scurrying prey.
My approach flushed the bird which clutched a chunk of prey as it retreated a hundred yards away to finish its meal. The object of the Harrier interest turned out to be a dead coot. It was a very dead coot that had been long dead before the Harrier happened upon it. Tearing out chunks of the well-aged meat, the hungry predator proved to be a willing scavenger. It was both the grim reaper of life and a picker of bones.