Idaho Falls
clear sky
humidity: 32%
wind: 6mph SSW
H 60 • L 58

Northern Harriers perform aerial acrobatics above Market Lake

Living the Wild Life

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It is amazing what a few days of warm sunny days will do not only for us humans, but what it brings to life in the area marsh lands. I could almost hear the cattail roots beginning to push against the frozen ground as they attempted to create new shoots as I watched the new arrivals to Market Lake Wildlife Management Area.

The scenes change daily if not hourly at the WMA. It appears the herd of elk have moved north across Idaho Highway 33, and they have been replaced by new residents and visiting birds. A pair of Hooded mergansers were the first to greet me as I entered the marshes at Pond #2. American coots also arrived in the first pocket of open water on the ice-covered pond.

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A pair of Hooded mergansers. | Bill Schiess,

As I approached the end of the pond, I saw a flock of nine sandhill cranes. Six of the nine were the Greater sub-specie that are common to Idaho and three were only about half the size of the bigger ones. I had never seen sandhill cranes so small and did not realize there was a Lesser sub-specie until later when “expert birders” confirmed their identity. Old dogs, and men, can learn new things.

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A pair of rare Lesser sandhill cranes with two Greater sandhill cranes. | Bill Schiess,

These were all “frosting on the cake” for me as I was there to watch and take pictures of Northern Harriers as they performed “fly-dancing” over the Triangle Marsh. The few winter-resident harriers have been added to by new arrivals and together they are performing “getting to know you” activities as they staked out individual summer homes.

I counted 17 of these Circus cyaneus (circle fliers) as the males started their roller-coaster display by ascending high into the air then barrel rolling into a free-fall. Just before hitting the marsh vegetation covered ground, they head back up. Then as a female came by hunting for food, a male made good his common name (the harrier) and harasses the larger darker female. It was an agnostic attack where no contact is usually made and nothing is exchanged – yet; those actions will come later after the female has chosen who her significant other will be.

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A male Northern harrier escorting two females across the Triangle Marsh at Market Lake. | Bill Schiess,

I was amazed at their style of hunting. Their attacks are not fast or violent – speed is not used as they drift over the marsh grass looking for a prey. Harriers have an owl-like face with facial discs and they use them to hunt by sound as well as by sight, the only specie of hawks that do. Once a potential meal is spotted, the bird hoovers in the air, then drops slowly into the grass where it will harvest and eat the meal. Later on, when mates have been chosen, males will eat some of their meal and then give the female the rest of it.

Northern harriers are rare ground nesting hawks and both females and males will pick out their nesting spot and as polygamists, males will attempt to be chosen by more than one female. The females will incubate the four to six eggs while the male’s jobs are to protect the nest and feed the female. When the male harvests food for the female, he will call out to her as he approaches the nest and she will fly up for an air-mail delivery. Once the kids are hatched, he will do an airdrop to them and the female will feed them.

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A male Northern harrier locating a rodent for a meal. | Bill Schiess,

In the next month, the harriers may have to change their nesting places as the BLM and Idaho Fish and Game will be doing some prescribed burning at Market Lake to improve it for waterfowl. The early nesters may have to start over in April, which will create more entertainment of aerial displays to watch.

As I was leaving the marsh, I noticed new arrivals. The spot where I had photographed the Hoodies had about 100 Ring-billed gulls dining on rotting catfish. They were so delicious that some of the gulls were arguing over them.

As I left, I reminded myself why I like to visit Market and Mud Lakes as the ice begins to melt – it gives enough water and hidden treasures from the receding ice to attract the birds and a huge stage for them to entertain me.

BE CAREFUL – the large animals are moving north back toward their summer range and bunches of elk and deer have been killed on Idaho Highway 33 and Interstate 15. It is not a good experience for man or beast.

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Two Ring-billed gulls discussing rotten catfish for lunch. | Bill Schiess,