February on the prairie can seem brown, lifeless and cold. But a visit to Kankakee Sands this time of year will certainly award you the great pleasure of watching a Northern Harrier fly slow and low over the wetlands and prairies of Kankakee Sands and the adjacent pastures and croplands. Birdwatching at Kankakee Sands can be wonderful experience, but for everyone’s safety, caution should be exercised at all times. If birding from roadways, please use your flashing lights and pull over to the side of the road. Whether in a car or on foot, birders must not impede traffic.
The Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Marsh Hawk, makes bird watching easy. You can even watch it from the warmth of your own car! It is a relatively large bird, 18 to 20 inches in length, with a wingspan of 40 to 46 inches across. While watching the Northern Harrier in flight you will notice that it is a slender bird, with a long tail and long wingspan. You know you’ve got a Northern Harrier in your sights when you see the characteristic “white rump patch”, a band of white feathers at the base of the tail which contrast strongly against the dark body feathers. Even from a distance you can tell whether you are looking at a male or female. The male is grey above and white below; the female is brown above and streaked white - brown below.
If you should happen to spot a Northern Harrier perched, you might notice that its face resembles that of an owl’s. Like the owl, the Northern Harrier relies heavily on hearing for hunting, and the rounded concave shape of the face helps to funnel sound to its ears. The Northern Harrier’s food of choice is voles, but it also feeds on other small mammals such as mice and young rabbits, small birds, lizards and large insects like grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets.
Mating season for the Northern Harrier begins in late March and early April (not in February despite the fact that love is supposedly in the air). If food resources are abundant, males will mate with more than one female; otherwise, males are monogamous. Nests made of sticks and grass are constructed on the ground in tall dense vegetation. Nests are often in wet areas. A female will lay four to six, small (1.5”), bluish-white eggs in the nest. If food is abundant, they may lay up to 10 eggs per nest. The female incubates the eggs for 30 days; the male provides the food for the female and the nestlings.
Northern Harriers are found across all of North and Central America and also in Eurasia. They are found in great number during the winter months at Kankakee Sands. So, come on out this February to marvel at the Northern Harriers. You never know, you might just fall in love with them! -Alyssa Nyberg