Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Northern Harrier at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

I haven't had many chances to catch pictures of Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus). It's not that we haven't seen any, it's just that when we do, they are flying and swooping some distance away. It looked like it was going to be another of that kind of day today as well.

We were headed out towards the South Jetty of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area to have a look at the pounding surf, and we saw a pair of birds flying low over the prairie grasses inland from the coast. I took them to be gulls out the corner of my eye but then realized they were flying differently.

In war movies, there's the occasional reference to flying beneath the radar, with planes skimming the surface and all, and that's what these birds were doing. They hardly ever went more than 10 feet off the ground as they soared across the landscape, appearing and disappearing around the high shrubs. I finally saw the flash of white at the base of their tails, and I knew they were Northern Harriers.
Still, it wasn't easy getting any pictures. One of them was actually paralleling the road, so we were able to follow it for more than a mile before losing it in the distant brush. We argued about whether to back down the road to see if it had circled back behind us but then I looked across the road through the window, and there was a Harrier perched on a log just a few yards away from us.
A bit fuzzy, but this was my best shot showing the owl-like face of the Harrier Hawk.
They have a short round face that strongly resembles an owl. In an evolutionary sense, this is an adaptation that enables the owls to hear sounds better, and the Harrier Hawks also depend a great deal on hearing for their hunting as they soar close to the ground. This sort of thing is called convergent evolution, when totally different organisms evolve similar features. Sharks and dolphins are examples of the same sort of convergence.

POSTSCRIPT (7/6/17): The scientific name of the Northern Harrier has been changed to Circus hudsonius

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