Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Episode 561 (1-25-21): The Northern Harrier's a Hawk on the Marsh

Click to listen to episode (4:04)

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 1-22-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of January 25, 2021.

MUSIC – ~14 sec – instrumental

That’s part of “Midwinter Etude,” by Timothy Seaman, of Williamsburg, Va.  It opens an episode about a kind of hawk that’s commonly found around eastern Virginia marshlands in wintertime.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to the following mystery sound, and see if you know this bird of prey. [Clarification, not in audio: “raptor” is a more precise term for hawks and related birds than is “bird of prey.”]  And here’s a hint: what might you call a cross-country runner located far north of Virginia?

SOUNDS  - ~11 sec 

If you guessed a Northern Harrier, you’re right!  Besides being a name for cross-country runners, harrier refers to a group of birds within the family that includes hawks, eagles, and kites.  The Northern Harrier is the only harrier species found in North America.  Occurring widely across the continent, this species sometimes is a summer breeder in southeastern coastal Virginia, but it’s more typically found in the Commonwealth during winter.

It was formerly called the Marsh Hawk because it’s frequently found around marshes, as well as in meadows, grasslands, and other open, vegetated areas.  In these areas, it flies low over the ground in search of its usual prey of small mammals, other birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.  Northern Harriers are also capable of taking larger prey like rabbits and ducks, and    they’ve been reported to overcome some of these larger animals by drowning them.  The Northern Harrier’s face looks somewhat like that of an owl, and, according to the National Audubon Society, the bird also resembles owls in using sharp hearing to help locate its prey.  As Alice and Robert Lippson put it in their book, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, quote, “Northern Harriers have an owl-like facial disc that apparently concentrates the sound of its prey; couple this with its keen eyesight, and mice and voles are in constant jeopardy of becoming lunch.”

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use the Northern Harrier sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  Thanks also to Timothy Seaman for permission to use part of “Midwinter Etude.”  We close with a little more music, in honor of all wild creatures, including harriers and other hawks.  Here’s about 10 seconds of “All Creatures Were Meant to Be Free,” by Bob Gramann of Fredericksburg, Va. 

MUSIC – ~12 sec – instrumental


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


“Midwinter Etude,” from the 1996 album “Incarnation,” is copyright by Timothy Seaman and Pine Wind Music, used with permission.  More information about Mr. Seaman is available online at http://timothyseaman.com/en/. 

The Northern Harrier sounds were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott.  Lang Elliot’s work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

“All Creatures Were Meant to Be Free,” from the 1995 album “Mostly True Songs,” is copyright by Bob Gramann, used with permission.  More information about Bob Gramann is available online at https://www.bobgramann.com/.  This music was previously used by Virginia Water Radio most recently in Episode 524, 5-11-20.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.


Painting of Marsh Hawk (former common name for Northern Harrier), originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate 356).  Image made available for public use by the National Audubon Society, online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america; specific URL for this image was https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/marsh-hawk, as of 1-22-21.


Northern Harrier in flight at Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, July 2011.  Photo by Amanda Boyd, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov; specific URL for this image was https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/13235/rec/1, as of 1-22-21.

Northern Harrier, photographed in southeastern Virginia, January 23, 2021.  Photo by iNaturalist user keyojimbo, made available online at https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/68521040 (as of 1-25-21) for use under Creative Commons license “Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0.”  Information about this Creative Commons license is available online at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.


The scientific name of the Northern Harrier is Circus hudsonius.

The following information is excerpted from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Tundra Swan,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040094&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18649.

Physical Description

“Adult female [is] brown above and on tail bands; lighter brown below with heavy brown streaking.  [Adult] male [is] ashy gray above and on tail bands; white with cinnamon spots below; wing tips black.  [B]oth sexes have long banded tail with prominent white rump patch.  [F]lies a few feet above ground; tilting from side to side and holding its long narrow wings upwards at slight angle.”

Reproduction and Behavior

“[R]itualized courtship, calls, skydancing, performed by male to advertise territory; males arrive at breeding grounds ahead of females; male provides food during incubation and early nestling period by passing food items to female in flight; rarely visits nest himself….  [N]ests built on ground often in marshy areas and surrounded by low shrubs or tall grasses rather than open.  [N]est is small structure of reeds and sticks on dry ground….  Forage by slowly flying over marshes and fields, usually below 10 feet (3 meters); they generally take small mammals but also use birds, [reptiles and amphibians], and insects.

Status of Population

“Harriers occur in relatively low numbers as breeders in Virginia, where they may be found using both open marshes and open upland grassland habitat.  Their numbers swell during the winter with the influx of migrants, and it is this winter population that should be the focus of conservation efforts.  Like other grassland species, Harriers rely on relatively large tracts, such that preserving and restoring blocks of native grasslands is a high priority conservation action for this species.  Wintering harriers will likewise use emergent wetlands; identification, protection, and management (for example, Phragmites control) of suitable marshes will be necessary to ensure continued habitat availability for this species…”


Used for Audio 

Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “Sounds Wild/Northern Harrier,” 1 min./31 sec. podcast, online at https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=soundswild.episode&title=Northern%20Harrier.

John James Audubon, Birds of America, online by The National Audubon Society at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.  The entry for the Marsh Hawk (the former common name for the Northern Harrier) is online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/marsh-hawk.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Field Guide/Birds,” online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/all/birds/all.  The Northern Harrier entry is online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/northern_harrier; “Raptors” is online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/all/birds/raptors); and “Marshes and Wetlands” is online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/marshes_wetlands/all/all.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.  The Northern Harrier entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Harrier.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Bird of prey,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/bird-of-prey; and “Harrier,” online at https://www.britannica.com/animal/harrier-bird.

Goddess of Never Broken blog site, “The Harrier Incident,” April 9, 2013, online at https://maibey.wordpress.com/tag/northern-harrier-drowning-prey/.  This blot post has a series of photos showing a Northern Harrier drowning an American Coot.

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay-3rd Edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006, page 234.

National Audubon Society, “Guide to North American Birds/Northern Harrier,” online at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-harrier.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

University of Missouri Raptor Rehabilitation Project, “Raptor Facts,” online at http://raptorrehab.cvm.missouri.edu/raptor-facts/.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Northern Harrier,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040094&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18649.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World,” online at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/home (subscription required).

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird. Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at https://animaldiversity.org/.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna of Virginia,” online (as a PDF) at https://dwr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/virginia-native-naturalized-species.pdf.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  This site provides bird songs from around the world. 


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

The Northern Harrier was one of the birds included in Episode 430, 7-23-18, on birds associated with marshes.  (Other birds featured in that episode are the Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Least Bittern, Common Moorhen, and Marsh Wren).

Following are links to other episodes on raptors (often also referred to as “birds of prey”).

Bald Eagle – Episode 375, 7-3-17.
Barred Owl – Episode 382 – 8-21-17.
Eastern Screech-Owl – Episode 227, 8-18-14.
Osprey – Episode 116, 6-25-12; Episode 175, 8-19-13.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs 

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2018 Science SOLs 

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.5 – Animals, including humans, have basic life needs that allow them to survive.
2.5 – Living things are part of a system.
3.4 – Adaptations allow organisms to satisfy life needs and respond to the environment.
3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.
4.2 – Plants and animals have structures that distinguish them from one another and play vital roles in their ability to survive.
4.3 – Organisms, including humans, interact with one another and with the nonliving components in the ecosystem.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
4.8. – Virginia has important natural resources.

Life Science
LS.5     – Biotic and abiotic factors affect an ecosystem.
LS.6     – Populations in a biological community interact and are interdependent.
LS.7 – Adaptations support an organism’s survival in an ecosystem.

BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15
– on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15
– on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16
– on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16
– on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18
– on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18
– on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18
– on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18
– on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19
– on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20
– on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20
– on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20
– on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.