The “Hover Pounce” Hunting Technique Of Northern Harriers

Northern Harriers have a hunting technique all their own.

The following three photos are sequential shots of the same hunting harrier.


1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Northern Harrier two days ago at Farmington Bay WMA. This was a case where I was familiar with this particular bird’s hunting habits and I predicted its flight path so I had positioned my pickup to get the shots when I saw the bird following the curved road, just like happened in this previous post from a few days earlier. I’m fairly certain it’s the same harrier in both posts.

Harriers virtually always hunt on the wing (usually from less than 15′ off the ground) rather than from perches like Red-tailed Hawks and other buteos often do. Their very light bodies allow them a buoyant, gliding flight with relatively few wing flaps. Most prey pursuits are short and close to the ground. They often use the cover of vegetation and terrain to ambush prey.

Typical of harriers this bird was looking for prey almost straight down most of the time but this shots shows better eye contact.



This photo, taken almost immediately after the previous one, shows how quickly a harrier can react to potential prey below it. I never see other hawks in such an extreme hovering posture as this. The entire body of the bird is hanging down from its wings with its talons in position to penetrate the deep brush and snatch the prey when and if the bird drops down.



1/6400, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Once potential prey has been spotted below them they use one of four types of pounces as described by researchers. This posture precedes the “hover pounce” where they hover over the prey (in my area it’s usually a vole) for 1-3 seconds before quickly dropping on it. This harrier obviously has its eyes glued to something down there but this time it didn’t make an actual attempt at catching it and soon went on its way.

I like this photo for a variety of reasons and one of them is actually related to an aesthetic shortcoming – that stalk of out of focus vegetation poking up into the bird’s lower breast. It’s common for harriers to hover this low but I rarely see good photos of it because the vegetation sticking up into the frame usually grabs onto the camera’s active focus points and causes the harrier to be very soft.

So I like this photo partially because it shows typical harrier behavior – hunting so slow and low to the ground that they’re actually almost engulfed by part of the vegetation directly below them.





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