Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Nature Watch: "Northern Harrier"


Last updated 2/15/2024 at 11:25am

I thought it might be a bush blowing across the desert in the strong winds last week near Hawk Canyon. Looking closer I spotted a northern harrier maneuvering just above ground level and being chased by an angry raven.

This beautiful raptor is a winter visitor to Anza-Borrego and easily identified by both its behavior and a characteristic white patch at the base of its tail. The white patch can be quite obvious while the bird is in flight and a key to identifying this bird.

The wintering northern harriers come here from summer breeding grounds that extend as far north as the arctic tundra of northern Alaska and Canada.

One of the distinctive behaviors that also helps identify this bird is how it hunts. The harrier flies just above ground level, unlike other raptor species that float high above the ground or watch for prey from an elevated perch.

The harrier has excellent hearing that it uses to detect prey, in addition to keen eyesight. Food sources include small and medium-sized mammals and birds.


The harrier has a length of 18 to 20 inches and wingspan from about 40 to 46 inches. Males are typically smaller than females.

Male harriers are gray on the upper body with whitish below, black wing tips and the outer edge of the wings darker. The tail is black-banded.

Females are darker brown, with black bands on the tail.

This beautiful bird offers winter visitors to the desert one more species to add to their life list.

They have frequently been spotted in areas around Borrego Badlands, including San Felipe Wash, Hawk Canyon and Clark Lake.

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