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Encounters with a Gray Ghost

March 17, 2022
Northern Harrier Gray Ghost

Spending a few afternoons with a gray ghost may sound eerie, but I found these visits to be quite enjoyable.  I'm actually referring to photography sessions with a male northern harrier (Circus hudsonius).  These are magnificent birds that look like a hawk, but have the facial disc of an owl set with yellow, piercing eyes.  Their wings are long with black tips and black-tipped secondaries.  Why the mysterious "gray ghost" reference?  Generally, male northern harriers are seen less frequently than the females and juveniles.  Additionally, female and juvenile northern harriers are brown, and the males are gray.  The color of the male, coupled with its silent, slow, gliding motion while hunting prey has earned this male raptor the moniker - gray ghost.

During winter, I spend many, many days in habitats that support migratory birds, and this led to my introduction to the gray ghost.  Although I had observed female and juvenile northern harriers quite often throughout the winter, it wasn't until late in the season that I noticed a gray colored hawk above a field adjacent to a lake that I frequent.  Its flight pattern was very low, just above the tall grass, and with little to no wing flapping.  When I saw the characteristic white stripe at the base of the tail, I knew immediately that this had to be a male northern harrier.  After a few days of observation, I realized that I could set my watch (really, it was my iPhone) by this raptor's ritual. It flew above the same section of field each afternoon during the same time period.

I eventually made my way over to the field one day, and there it was, right on time.  Each afternoon over the course of three days, I had several glorious minutes of nonstop camera shots of the gray ghost.  Then, it was gone, and I never saw it again.  It was around the time that northern harriers migrate, so perhaps it had taken flight for more northern territory.  Maybe it found another area with a greater abundance of prey.  Whatever the reason for its sudden absence, I hope a gray ghost returns next winter.

For those lucky enough to see a male northern harrier, you will find that the flight pattern is gliding and low to the ground, even and predictable, and much slower than that of other hawk species.  Of course, there is no guarantee that it will fly in close since their sight and hearing are very acute, so have the telephoto lens ready.  On the other hand, given its flight speed and lack of wing movement, a need to drop the shutter speed a bit on darker, cloudy days shouldn't be a problem.  Regardless of the conditions, you will find an encounter with a gray ghost to be one of the highlights of your bird photography experiences.