“Marsh Hawk”, “Meadow Hawk” or however one’s local flavor might identify this beautiful raptor, the Northern Harrier is one of my favorite birds of prey to observe and can be a joyful challenge to photograph. “Hopewell Harry” was the nickname I chose for this young male harrier who entertained me during several visits to the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex near the borough of Stewartstown Pennsylvania. He became quite the subject of my attention during the afternoons while he hunted the grasslands of the project while I awaited the showing of my targeted subjects, the short-eared owls who wintered at this location. In fact, he seemed to have little fear and seemed to care less that I was present, as he would come very close at times during his exploration of the field looking for a tasty meal.
Located in York County Pennsylvania near the intersections of Plank Road and Althouse School Road, the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex (Map via Google) is a project of the York County Solid Waste Authority. This now closed and reclaimed landfill consists of approximately 200 acres that during 2006, and with an agreement with Hopewell Township, were developed into a public recreation complex that include multi-use fields, walking trails, a wildlife habitat area, tot and youth playgrounds, a picnic pavilion, information kiosks and two bird/wildlife viewing platforms. More than 122 species of birds have been documented at the site. The Authority provided the funds to build the facility and Hopewell Township is the facility operator.
The Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) can most often be seen flying low and gracefully above upland grassy fields or inland and coastal marshy areas, and primarily in search of food. Males, often addressed as the “Gray Ghost”, are a beautiful slate grey and white, while the females are a dark chocolate-brown with lighter, buffy streaking on the head and a buff-colored breast. Both the male and female Northern Harrier present a bright white rump patch that is clearly visible in flight. The harrier is considered one of the most agile and acrobatic in North America with the male’s elaborate courtship flights consisting of a series of U-shaped maneuvers.
Northern Harriers breed in North America from northern Alaska and Canada, south to central and southern California, Mexico and portions of the southern U. S., but exclude the southeast region of the country. Wintering occurs from southern Canada to northern South America. Communal flocks roost on the ground during winter and migratory periods in agricultural fields, abandoned fields and salt marshes. Breeding occurs in both freshwater and brackish marshes, tundra, fallow grasslands, meadows and cultivated fields.
Historically, populations of Northern Harriers were considered abundant and widespread. However, significant declines began in the 1950’s and were attributed to factors such as loss of breeding habitat and effects of pesticides. Reforestation, filling in of wetlands, changes in land use, changes in agricultural practices and urban and industrial development all contributed to habitat losses. (NY DEC)
Capturing images of the Northern Harrier’s flight will test even the most experienced avian photographer with their unpredictable and erratic patterns of flight, especially while hunting close to the ground. Today’s modern DSLR camera’s and fast lenses with blazing auto-focus speed make the job a bit easier for the aspiring “bird in flight” photographer such as myself. However, tall upland or marsh grasses, brush and other obstructions at the subject’s level can test a photographer’s knowledge of his camera’s auto-focus settings and capabilities.
The images presented here were some of the first “bird in flight” images captured with my new Canon EOS 7D Mark II paired with the Sigma 150-600 Sports lens and I’m extremely pleased with the performance of both compared to the performance of the same lens paired with my older Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN which was just “acceptable” for “bird in flight” photography; although paired with a fast-prime lens, that old body was once considered the flagship of its time…
“Happy Shooting” ……….