Northern Harriers and “ground hunting”

Ground hunting Northern HarrierGround hunting Northern Harrier

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.

Northern Harrier "ground hunting"Northern Harrier “ground hunting”

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.


  1. Greg Gard October 3, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    I saw harriers walking around and picking up the grass multiple times but never saw them being successful with catching a prey. One thing interesting that I witnessed couple of years ago was that, after the successful attack on the pigeon from above, harrier landed but the little stream/puddle of water and started to drown it! One of those rare but exciting days in the field 🙂

    Thank you for sharing you photographs!

  2. Elephant's Child October 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    What an amazing thing to see. Oooh and ahhh. And repeat. Thank you.

  3. Kathie October 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Mia, I just photographed a harrier on the ground in the salt marsh of Hammonassett Beach SP in Ct last week. It was preening when i saw it, but I never considered it might also be ground hunting! the tide was out and I am not sure if it was standing on a little hummock of grass or a rock. Still, I love harriers and I really like their old name better: Marsh Hawk! I do remember watching them hunt all along the shores of the Great Salt lake as well as on Antelope Island. Thanks for sharing this information.

  4. M. Bruce October 3, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Fascinating observation Mia, thanks for sharing!

  5. SkyHawker4 October 3, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Mia your pics are just fantastic and have really helped in Raptor ID! Easy to miss identify but now I have a clearer insight into the markings that determine who is who! I could easily mistake a Northern Harrier from an RTH at a distance. Knowing their hunting habits makes a huge difference in ID.
    All the published books on Rator ID don’t even measure up to your amazing pictures!
    Thank You, can’t say enough!

  6. Wally October 3, 2014 at 7:42 am


    I had not realized the Northern Harrier exhibited that behavior. Cool! Marvelous photographs! I’m anticipating seeing the first of the fall migrants any day now.

  7. Lois Bryan October 3, 2014 at 7:26 am

    LOVE these … the second one really gives us a glimpse into Birdie’s personality .. great, great images!!!!

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