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Birds of FortWhyte: Northern Harriers to Red-Winged Black Birds

Posted on August 12, 2016


Photo by Karin Murray-Bergquist

by Karin Murray-Bergquist

Nearly every morning, biking along the North Trail, I startle it. A pair of wide grey wings beats upward from the grass, voiceless, but loud with the crack and whiffle of dry bracken. It goes its way, and swiftly -- often soaring high and far from the path, before I can see it clearly. According to my observant coworkers, there is a pair of marsh hawks, or Northern harriers, in that vicinity, nesting.

Of a subtler colour than the red-tailed hawk, the marsh hawk has nonetheless the broad wing-span and sharp vision that characterizes birds of prey. Males and females are both said to attend to the nest, which is built on the ground or amongst low bushes, with the female incubating the eggs while the male brings food. They are different in appearance, the female being of a browner colour. This grey-shaded one may be the male.


Photo by Karin Murray-Bergquist

Audubon's Birds of America describes the marsh hawk, characterizing its flight as 'irregular sailings', neither 'swift nor strong', but acknowledges its 'astonishing quickness' in striking its prey. I have seen it in the opposite role -- beating a hasty retreat.

Last week, the great, graceful raptor fled the attacking beak of an irate red-winged blackbird, the latter piping out his noisy wrath. I watched from the hill, an already hot morning stirred little by the breeze, as this chase broke the stillness of the air. The aggression of a little bird faced with a threat, likely to a nearby nest, is proverbial, but to see it played out before me brought this image vivid action.

Marshes may not be the traditional scene of grand natural drama -- that role belongs rather to old-growth forests, mountains, and moors -- but the struggles for survival that play out on their stage are fierce. Another blackbird living near FortWhyte has taken exception to my bicycle and me: he has flown at me with furious jabbering as I make my way to work. Hitchcock, as I have nicknamed him, has been a frequent presence on the daily ride, energetic in his defense of the nest, but easily driven off by a shout. It must look strange from a distance.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, harriers and red-winged blackbirds share much of their range, though the latter inhabit more territory all year round. Audubon, too, remarks on the extensive range of the marsh hawk, observed by himself as far south as Texas, and by Dr. John Richardson (of Richardson's ground squirrel fame) north of 65 degrees. Aside from this, there is little resemblance, at least in their relationship with humans.


Photo by Gerald Kornelsen

Red-winged blackbirds, noted for their 'nefarious propensities' (Audubon again), have made themselves too much at home in farmers' fields, whereas marsh hawks are unobtrusive creatures. However, in devouring harmful insects in the spring, the blackbirds have made themselves useful, redeeming their inconvenient habit of consuming crops of corn. Their song, too, is a cheering sound, in contrast to the quieter harrier.

FortWhyte's harrier, if it does indeed nest near the trail, seems not to feel threatened by people: it need not fear Audubon's observation that it is an easy mark for sportsmen, and it is protected in its current habitat. Though it could give chase, as the blackbird does, its preference is to start upward and away, surprised but apparently not offended.

It goes its own way, and I go mine.

As FortWhyte Alive's seasonal interpreter, Karin will share her observations and musings on the trail this summer.