My obsession with northern harriers continues unabated and I have managed to get out for a couple of hours most days – even as the FIFA World Cup continues – to find these magnificent birds of prey.

With two days respite until the weekend’s quarterfinal matches – including the France v England game on Saturday afternoon – I thought I would update you on my experiences out in the field.

Again, the fact that I need only drive ten minutes to find northern harriers, not to mention red tailed hawks, bald eagles and other assorted species cannot be understated. On my way home I often swing by to see if a pair of red tailed hawks are hunting in their usual spot.

A red tailed hawk hunting near a busy country road. I often find it in the same place.

But, at the moment it is the harriers which occupy my thoughts simply because, until this autumn, I have never really focused on them. They are absolutely fascinating.

As any wildlife photographer knows one of the most important elements of the craft is to know your subject. This requires not only reading up on their behaviour as to when they are most active and what terrain they favour but also observing their patterns to learn more.

Northern harriers continually fly over fields in contrast to other hawks which either perch in trees, on hydro poles or fence posts and watch for prey. Nature has provided the harrier with a facial disc which helps direct sound to their ears just like owls. This must explain why they abruptly change direction so frequently. And the fact that they might double back after flying past is great for photography. 

I have sort of figured out one female harrier’s route and when I stopped in to say hello to a local farmer one day – pointing out that this raptor often flies closely by his house – he kindly invited me to park my car on the grass to the side of his house.

Now, I am not that keen on photographing from inside my car. First, the range of motion is limited. And second, the contrast in temperatures inside and outside the car can lead to lens distortion. But to get around that I have found that it helps to open up both windows and turn off the engine.  

In the course of two hours the harrier came past me three times fully aware of me shooting away from inside the car. The first time I was unprepared for how close she came and inside a second I could not snap an image that didn’t cut off part of her wings. On subsequent passes I stood next to the car and she obliged by hovering over potential prey long enough to capture her in action.

As more of our farmland is eaten up by urban expansion I am not sure how much longer we will continue to enjoy the presence of these magnificent creatures around here. Farmers are selling up to developers.

According to the Ontario Farmland Trust we are losing 319 every day in Ontario! Indeed, the fields adjacent to where I find these birds are earmarked for either gravel pits or housing development. 

Mostly, I shudder when I see our provincial government removing 3,000 hectares of land from the protected Greenbelt and allowing developers to acquire it. It begs belief that developers would want this land unless they knew it was to be removed from the Greenbelt protection. How do politicians get away with this? 

For now I plan to enjoy the wildlife near my home. My fascination with northern harriers is simply growing.




  1. Dolf Jansen

    Glad you pointed out the difference between the hawks behavior and the Northern Harrier.
    You are not alone in your disgust for DF developer takes all attitude.
    Hopefully the new year will bring common sense back to where it belongs.
    Nature and bio-diversity is a rare gift for all to enjoy.

    1. Paul E Gains

      Thanks for your comment, Dolf. The actions of this provincial government are shocking in many ways but particularly in its servitude to political donors. Anything for a buck!

  2. Dave Bond

    Great stuff Paul. I became aware of Northern Harriers while working with Wildlife Preservation Canada’s “Adopt-a-Site program” for Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes.

    My sites near Bobcaygeon have a pair of Harriers. The way they float over meadows with long, slow, undulating wing beats is something to see.

    One spring a few years back I saw the pair mate. It happened so fast that I didn’t realize what I had just witnessed. The pair exploded up from a swale of bullrushes, spiralled around each other to a height of about 20 feet, then alighted on the field nearby. The male hovered over the female, straddling her with his talons. The actual act of mating took a split second.

    Then they both flew a few hundred feat into the next field, and sat on the ground about 200 feet apart from one another. Like they were having a cigarette after!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *