Wandering the trails and pathways of the Meadowlands as a young boy was what I loved more than anything in the world. So despite it being a soggy, windy morning, I would start this memorable Saturday many years ago no different, by exploring the marshland trails not far from my home.
I can remember as if it were yesterday, walking quickly through a trail with phragmites higher than my head as they bent over in the wind, the crisp, cold breeze in my face and the wet, muddy ground which allowed me to walk silently into an open clearing. There perched on top of an old snag no more than 20 feet away was a stately Gray raptor. We looked into each other’s eyes, not sure who was more startled.
Our encounter felt like forever though it lasted but a few seconds as the large bird of prey flew off against the cloudy winter sky, quickly disappearing over the meadow. The face of this magnificent raptor is forever etched into my childhood memories. I knew I had encountered a very special creature, although I was not at all sure if it was a hawk or an owl as the unique face that stared into mine looked very owl-like. I stood there for a while in a kind of disbelief of what I had seen so close but soon headed home to check my old field guide.
This very special bird I soon found out was not an owl at all, although its face was very similar. Rather, my close encounter of a natural kind turned out to be a “Grey Ghost,” a male Northern Harrier, or as we knew them as kids, the Marsh Hawk.
There few things as special as watching a Northern Harrier work the fields of the Meadowlands . With its owl-like face, which unlike other hawks it uses to listen for mice and voles as it glides with its wings in a V-shape, hunting like it has since time immemorial. At times it seems pinned to the sky, hovering almost in suspended animation waiting and listening for prey. The sight will never get old with me, always thinking back to that dreary day when I came face to face with the premier hawk of the marshlands .
The male harrier, otherwise known as the “Grey Ghost,” is gray above and white below with black wingtips. Females and immatures are brown, with black bands on the tail. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, and immatures are buffy, with little less streaking. The white rump patch in both sexes that is obvious in flight is the easiest way to ID this amazing raptor of the grasslands.
Unfortunately the Northern Harrier is listed as an endangered species in New Jersey due to population declines and habitat loss. In 1984 the Northern Harrier was listed as an endangered species because of limited population size, restricted range, sensitivity to disturbance and continued loss of suitable nesting habitat. Wintering populations however give us a better opportunity to enjoy the Northern Harriers in the Meadowlands, especially along Disposal Road, adjacent to DeKorte Park, Mill Creek Marsh, and Laurel Hill County Park.
The Meadowlands gives us all a unique chance to view this incredible raptor as it continues on its journey of survival. Now is the time to get out and look for the ghost of the Meadowlands and make your own lifetime memories that I have been lucky enough to have. For more info on the Northern Harrier go to http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/northern-harrier.