"The Gray Ghost" is a term used to describe a male Northern Harrier. Relatively few adult males are seen and photographed. They seem to just appear out of nowhere and for this reason, mature males have long been referred to as “The Gray Ghosts”. The adult male is gray on its head, wings, and back with a gray tail banded with a number of darker gray bars. The male has white underparts, black wingtips, and a brilliant yellow eye. The Northern Harrier is one of the few raptors where the plumage of the male and female is very different. Since juvenile Northern Harriers resemble the adult female in plumage color, there appears to be more female harriers than males. Female and immature Northern Harriers are primarily brown overall with a lighter breast with dark streaks. Both the male and female have a very diagnostic white patch at the base of their tail. The Northern Harrier has a wingspan of 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet, with the female being quite a bit larger than the male.
Harriers are considered one of the most acrobatic raptors. They can be seen "hunting on the wing" flying low and slow over the fields as they hunt. When hunting, harriers use their hearing more than other hawks, with the help of their owl-like facial disks. Their prey consists of small mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds. While harriers fly calmly over a field, they will dramatically alter their direction and plunge onto their prey.
Northern Harriers nest on the ground in piles of sticks and leaves. A male harrier will mate with multiple females and can be seen flying a series of barrel rolls during their courtship display.
There are numerous Northern Harriers at Hagerman Wildlife Refuge right now. Mostly females and juveniles, but we have seen males on a few occasions. Getting close enough to a Northern Harrier to get a good photo is difficult. Trying to chase or follow them with a vehicle usually does not result in a close image. Studying a harrier's flight habits and patterns over a few days can give the photographer an idea of where to park and wait for the harrier to come to them. Harriers tend to fly regular routes along ditches, hedgerows, fencelines and road margins. I have had some luck using this technique resulting in a number of flight and portrait images of both the female and male Northern Harrier.
Written by: Skeeter & Marolyn Lasuzzo
Photography by: Skeeter Lasuzzo