I enjoy seeing Northern Harriers any time of the year but even more so during the winter months because they stand out well from the snow on the ground and because when there are colder temperatures they are a bit more “sticky”. Northern Harriers do breed and nest here in Utah and are year round residents.
During the winter I have observed and photographed Northern Harriers “ground hunting” which means they capture prey from the ground instead of in flight.
Birds of North America (BNA) states:
Virtually always hunts on the wing, coursing low (<5 m) over ground with a buoyant, gliding flight; flaps intermittently. Most pursuits are short temporally and spatially, and close to ground.
I can only speculate on the Northern Harriers ground hunting behavior that I have observed but I usually only see this behavior when the ground is covered with deep snow and when the temperatures are very cold. Ground hunting may happen because the deep snow cover makes it more difficult for the Northern Harriers to see and hear their prey from flight. I’ve also wondered if ground hunting behavior uses less energy at a time when the harriers need to conserve it due to the low temps.
The Northern Harriers I see “ground hunting” usually find a slightly elevated perch and sit there until they hear prey through the snow and then walk on the snow and pounce on their prey.
Whatever the reason for this behavior I know that I enjoy photographing Northern Harriers while they are ground hunting in a winter wonderland.
These images were taken in 2009 at Farmington Bay Migratory Bird Refuge in Davis County, Utah.