Piney Tract is located in the heart of Clarion County PA, a little north of the small town of Sligo. It contains superb habitat for many birds especially the grassland species. It has one of the highest concentrations of the rare Henslow’s Sparrow of anywhere in the state! You can also find the Clay-colored Sparrow there most summers which is even more rare for PA. It also is a favorite spot for breeding Northern Harriers. Harriers are strictly found in grasslands or marshes where they most often hunt flying very close to the ground. They look like a cross between a hawk and owl with their disc shaped head, which lets them have incredible hearing capability that is mostly associated with owls. This year there was a pair of Harriers nesting not far from the road at Piney Tract, which afforded observers a close look at these marvelous birds of prey. Just sitting in the car, you had the best seat in the house! They build their nest on the ground in the high grass and weeds, so it is well concealed. The first day I went there to watch them the male, who is also known as the “Gray Ghost” from his white and gray coloration, flew up and perched on the sign post not more than 20 yards from my vehicle!
After sitting there for awhile chillin’ and preening his gorgeous feathers, he took off and flew right past me and let me get this shot of him taking off.
The male rarely, if at all, came in to feed the chicks in the nest. Instead he would hand off the food to the female who would then take the food in and feed the little ones. Harriers are one of the few birds of prey where the male and female look very different, she is mostly brown with streaks on the chest. Here the female comes in with a freshly caught song bird.
And here she is about to drop down into the nest.
Nearly every time I went to watch the Harriers, I witnessed a food exchange, where the male and female fly up together, then the male drops the food and the female catches it, all in mid air!! I was able to capture this sequence of frames that shows how it’s done.
Once the female had the prey item, she would fly around with it for awhile and drop down to different spots in the field. I believe she did this to make it hard for anything to know exactly where the nest location was and to also “prep the food”, skin it or pluck the feathers before feeding it to the little ones. Finally after some time she would then come down and enter the nest.
The males duties were to hunt and defend the nest. Anything that got too close to the nest was met by the male as he dive bombed it, as was the case with this unsuspecting Turkey Vulture.
As time went on, the female would spend a lot of time soaring near the nest location, maybe she was trying to entice the little ones to try out their wings like she was.
Here is some video of her flying high:
Every now and then the male would come around close but mostly he was out and about.
One of my favorite shots I got of this beautiful pair was right as I was leaving one evening. I looked out over the hills towards the setting sun and there she was flying off into the sunset.
One of my friends who also watched the pair often, said he saw at least 3 chicks fledge the nest. Live long and prosper Harriers!