Saturday, September 22, 2012

One-legged Northern Harrier, Lodge lake Trail, Washington State


A 1st year Northern Harrier sitting on a downed log, Lodge Lake Trail, Snoqualmie Wilderness, WA; 8/10/2012.
I was fortunate to spend some time in Washington State at the beginning of August to get some hiking and birding in before my busy school year tackles me. One of the cool places near Seattle is the Snoqualmie Wilderness, which has hiking trails galore. On our last day in the area, Val and I hiked to Lodge lake where I found lots of dragonflies and damselflies (a subject for a future post). About two-thirds of the way to Lodge Lake, as I was rounding the bend past a smaller pond, I noticed a trio of hikers looking intently into the brush. Not knowing what they were spying on, I slowed down and tread quietly, not wanting to scare whatever it was they were looking at. One of the hikers motioned me toward them and pointed out a raptor sitting on a dead log stretched over a marshy area. They said they saw the raptor circling above and then make a landing behind some trees. They didn't see it land, but came upon it a few minutes later - assuming it was the same bird. Noticing my large lens (Sigma 150-500mm) hanging off my harness- just a tad bit bigger than their camera phone, they wanted me to take a photo (did they really have to ask?) so they could get a closer look. I hurriedly snapped a couple of photos (Above) to make sure I had something before it flew off. I shared the photos with them and they wanted to know if it was a Golden Eagle. I told them it looked too small to be an eagle - more likely a hawk, but since raptors aren't a strength of my bird identification skills I couldn't offhand think of which hawks were completely dark reddish brown. A Dark Morph Ferruginous came to mind but I couldn't remember if it would be found in a forested area (later research proved they are more of a arid grassland raptor). A Red-shouldered Hawk also came to mind, but I couldn't remember if these would be found in the Pacific Northwest, and also it seemed to me Red Shoulders have white on their undersides. Later research proved that these are found on the West Coast, but rarely in the north, but could be found in forest habitats. It turned out that this hawk didn't have enough white underneath to be a red-shouldered.
It appears that this Northern Harrier has only one leg,  Lodge Lake Trail, Snoqualmie Wilderness, WA; 8/10/2012.
Well, it turned out that this raptor was a 1st-Year Northern Harrier (Above), which has completely dark brown back, wings, tail and head, with Rufus breast and belly. The trait which ultimately identifies this guy as a Northern Harrier is its disc-shaped face which outlined its cheeks. Some bird guides say this hawk has an "owl-like facial disc." As I was photographing this Harrier, it didn't seem to mind us being there. In fact it didn't make any sort of move to fly away. It definitely knew we were there (perhaps 40 yards away), and it continued to scan its surroundings - presumably looking for prey.  The trio of hikers continued on their journey (opposite direction of where I was headed). I stayed to take more photos, and after a good ten minutes this harrier stayed put, and I continued my hike to Lodge Lake.
The same Northern Harrier craning its neck, Lodge Lake Trail, Snoqualmie Wilderness, WA; 8/10/2012.
It took me another 20 minutes to reach Lodge Lake, stayed there for a good 20 minutes to take photos of the many damselflies and dragonflies present, then started my return hike back to the trailhead.  Twenty minutes later, I was back at the spot where the Northern Harrier was - and it was still sitting in the same spot (Above) - over an hour later. I thought it was good luck (for taking more photos), but thought it unusual for a hawk to stay in one spot for so long. I suppose it could have left and returned. I decided to try my strategy of taking a photo and then taking a few steps closer to see if it would stay or scare off. This Harrier let me cut the original distance of over 100 feet in half, perhaps even more. I had to bushwhack noisily through some thick brush to get closer and ultimately I was probably only 40 feet away when I was at my closest - still photographing. It would glance my way periodically, but largely ignored me. I took almost 100 pics of this guy before I decided I couldn't get any better, and I continued my hike back to the trailhead where Val was undoubtedly already there waiting for me. She no longer wonders why I fall so far behind on our hikes - she knows that I am out stalking a bird. But the Harrier was still sitting in the same spot when I left it.
It was only after I was showing Val all the nice close ups I had of the Harrier, that she remarked that it looked like it only had one leg. I then looked at every single of the 100 images I had of it, and she was correct, I couldn't find a single photo that showed more than one leg. The three photos I put on this post all show one leg. It dawned upon me that this might be the reason it didn't fly off easily. I guessed that with only one leg, it might be more difficult for it to land; therefore, it stays in one spot as long as it can before it is forced to move. I was glad I decided not to get any closer which might have scared it into flight.

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