Good Day for Birding

Yesterday, with its cloudless blue sky, bright sunshine, and no wind, was a perfect day to look for migrating birds. A friend and I decided to drive half an hour west of here to an area of open fields, where flocks of migrating birds often stop to rest and fuel up on their way north. A week ago, when most of the fields were still covered with snow, I had seen a couple of hundred Canada geese and about 75 snow geese feeding in one field, and we hoped they might still be there.

The fields were free of snow when we arrived. We drove along slowly, looking to both sides of the road, checking out the wet, muddy fields. In some fields there were puddles the size of small ponds, and in a few of them we found mallards and American black ducks. In another field, we saw dozens of robins. They stood up tall, perhaps keeping an eye out for predators in that exposed place, and then they quickly ran a few steps, put their heads down, and poked in the soft earth for something to eat. The sun was warm, so we rolled down the windows to listen for bird songs. At the edge of one field, we heard a flock of noisy blackbirds, and looked up to find two big trees full of common grackles and red-winged blackbirds, recent arrivals from the south.

The road wound along beside a slow moving river, where we discovered a shy pair of wood ducks swimming under low overhanging branches and trying to look inconspicuous. The female, who was mottled brown, with a distinctive white teardrop shaped patch around each eye, did not stand out, but her handsome, brightly plumaged mate was hard to miss. We were reluctant to disturb them, so after a brief look we continued on, past one farmyard with large powerful draft horses, and another farmyard where llamas lounged beside a shed.

The car rolled along the edge of a quiet road beside an open field, where we admired a stunning view of snow-covered mountains rising beyond the nearby hills. We were commenting to one another about how many birds we had seen and what a good time we were having, when we caught sight of a large pale gray bird flying low over the field. We stopped the car and watched as the bird flew back and forth over the top of the tall grass, at times only about 50 feet from us, at eye level. The bird’s long wings, held up in a slight V, were tipped with black, and his white rump gleamed in the bright sunlight. It was a male northern harrier. We watched as he glided low over the field, almost touching the tops of the grasses, and when he hovered over one spot his bright yellow legs dangled down as if ready to grab anything on the ground. He flapped his wings twice, banked and turned, and then glided effortlessly in another direction. Bathed in sunlight, the bird appeared almost white, a vision of light and lightness floating through the air so close to the ground.

Northern harriers, formerly known as marsh hawks, are birds of open fields, marshes, and wet meadows. They hunt voles and other small creatures by flying low and listening for movement on the ground. Other hawks rely primarily on keen eyesight to locate prey, but the northern harrier also has exceptional hearing, thanks to a facial disk of feathers, similar to that of owls, which collects and focuses sound.

The harrier finally moved farther away, and it was time for us to move on, too. We had not found the flock of snow geese, but we had seen many other birds, which were moving north with the season. We had also seen interesting farms, and picturesque mountain views, but best of all we had spent time enjoying the graceful, sunlit flight of a male northern harrier.

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