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The Northern Harrier and Autumn


Fall in Texas. It means many things to many people: a break from extreme summer temperatures, the rapidly approaching holidays, hunting season, or football season. The way people measure the onset of Fall is just as varied, whether it's the temperatures, the calendar with the fall equinox, or the first day of dove season.


Admittedly, I’m not usually convinced it is Fall during the opening weekend of dove season. The often oppressive heat of early September, and sometimes even as late as the Fall equinox, makes it hard to imagine that we are moving into the season of changing leaves and ominous northers blowing cold driving rain.


Some people judge the arrival of Fall by the beginning of Christmas sales, pumpkin spice lattes, and the ever-present itch to spend some money on probably useless trinkets and mind-occupying devices to give to their children and loved ones. I find all of those things to be too forced, too human to really mean anything about the Fall equinox and changing conditions.


Some of us gauge the beginning of Fall based on the arrival of certain familiar faces that return when the conditions are right, just as my parents and others around me have always judged summer’s arrival by the appearance of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus). The faces of Fall that announce the arrival of cold fronts, shorter daylight hours, and hunting season for some include the trusty Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis). The sometimes hours-long procession of flying V-formations scroll across the sky with the boisterous trumpeting sounds that accompany these gangly birds. I have fallen asleep on the ground, staring straight up into overcast skies, listening to them. Those are peaceful sounds.


The face that symbolizes the arrival of Fall to me is that of the Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonias). I would think that in most circles the Northern Harrier is overlooked as a part of our world. They are rather inconspicuous unless you know what you are looking at. To most, they are probably generically dismissed as “hawks.” I typically spot the first Harrier around the equinox. I would say that usually I do not spot my first one until a week or two into October. That is when my Fall begins. Hawks and falcons utilize many different hunting styles. Some soar high to spot their prey, as with the Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Some, like the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), make spectacular dives (also known as stoops) of over 200 mph to damage the wing or cervical vertebrae of their avian prey while in flight. Still, others like the Goshawk (Accipiter atricapillus) will perch and watch, waiting for the perfect chance to make an attack. In these attacks, goshawks can put on a remarkable display of agility, as their primary hunting grounds lie within forested areas.


The harrier, however, is a slower, more patient hunter. If you find one at its work and sit and watch for a while, you’ll notice that the bird will weave patiently back and forth gliding no more than a few feet over grassy areas and around the fringes of brushy areas. Sometimes, it almost seems as though they are filling transects. If you are close enough to see, the wings maintain a glide and occasionally beat to maintain flight. As that is occurring, the head is swiveling about with sharp movements and piercing eyes, waiting and expecting movement from a nervous rodent or small bird. Upon detecting that movement, a sudden dive can sometimes be fruitful. If the prey escapes into thicker vegetation or a brush pile, the harrier may hover above the last known location of the prey to attempt to flush it again.

This slow, patient, but very direct method of hunting has always been a joy to watch for me. It often reminds me of the patience I should have both when hunting and in life in general. At the same time, the final attack reminds me of the decisiveness with which I should strive to act.


In a more anthropomorphic sense, the tactics employed by the Harrier are somewhat mimicked by the venerable A-10 Warthog aircraft. Low and slow, but with an intimidating ability to wreak havoc on those below it.


As these graceful and fierce birds make their way to Archer and Young counties, the effect they have on the rodent prey they take is a preemptive taloned symbol of the impending harshness of winter’s grasp. The often elevated populations of rodents, grown chubby on the grains of spring and summer’s harvest, are now faced with numbers of many hawk and falcon species, eager to resupply their migration-depleted bodies with nutrients.


For anyone who cares or is looking for a new harbinger of Autumn, consider the Harrier. And for anyone who has read this far and cares, as of October 11, 2023, determined while driving to my daughter’s district cross country meet, it is officially Fall.


(No pictures. I'm a horrible bird photographer. Plus, now you have an excuse to go outside and find a Harrier to watch!)


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