Northern Harriers In Flight – Where Do Those Long Legs And Feet Go?

Northern Harriers perform a pretty neat trick with their unusually long, slender legs and feet while they’re in flight.


northern-harrier-0556 ron dudley

This older photo of a harrier just after take-off at Farmington shows just how long their legs are. It seems logical that those legs and feet could present a potential problem when they’re at cruising speed because anything that might disrupt airflow over their body profile would decrease aerodynamic efficiency and thus require more effort and expenditure of energy to stay airborne. Like most birds, including other raptors, harriers tuck their legs up and against their rump and tail while in full flight but just how effectively do they do it?



northern harrier 5700 ron dudley1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Northern Harrier two days ago as it hunted the edges of Goose Egg Island at Farmington Bay MBR. The image demonstrates how amazingly well their legs and feet become incorporated into the sleek profile of the hawk in flight. Those unusually long appendages seem to virtually disappear, even in such a slender bird. I suspect that their relatively small feet (for a raptor) make this disappearing trick a little easier – in my experience the feet of most other raptors, when tucked, tend to be more conspicuous than those of harriers.

I know I’m not pointing out anything new to most observers but it seems to me that many of us take this disappearing act of bird legs and feet for granted. Some species do it better than others and harriers are some of the best at it.

The adaptations of birds for flight are amazing and this is one I often marvel at in the field, especially in harriers.





Male American Kestrel (and a meadowlark with a death wish)

After all the time I’ve spent in the field watching and photographing birds and their behaviors I still occasionally see something that surprises me. This time I wasn’t able to photograph the actual behavior (there is no meadowlark in any of these images) but I still wanted to post the kestrel and describe what I observed.


american kestrel 5577 ron dudley

1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this male American Kestrel yesterday morning at Farmington MBR. He was perched in good light, he stood his ground as I approached and I like the wispy background that includes fall vegetation colors and blue sky. It’s just a simple image that I like even though I wish I’d been a little closer to the bird.

He only gave me a few seconds to photograph him before he…



american kestrel 5590 ron dudley

1/4000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

took off after apparent prey on the ground just a few feet from the post he had been perched on (as per usual he took off away from me…). As he was on the ground and before I could get my lens trained on him a Western Meadowlark attacked him. The attack didn’t appear to be typical mobbing behavior where songbirds harass a raptor but keep a safe distance. This meadowlark appeared intent on doing bodily harm to the little falcon.



american kestrel 5592 ron dudley

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

The kestrel took off to escape the meadowlark. It all happened so fast that I had no time to properly aim my lens so I simply pointed it (without looking through my viewfinder) in the general direction of the kestrel and fired off a short burst. Amazingly I caught the kestrel in the frame though it isn’t particularly sharp. The kestrel landed on the side of a nearby hill and was attacked again by the meadowlark so it flew off.

I thought the meadowlark was really gutsy to take on a kestrel so aggressively. Meadowlarks are quite large songbirds (almost as big as a kestrel, 97g vs 117g) but they’re not nearly as maneuverable in the air as a smaller passerine. When kestrels take on birds as prey they’re usually “small passerines” according to BNA Online (and in my own experience), although BNA does report a single anecdotal incident of a kestrel killing a Northern Flicker.

There’s nothing earthshaking here and I didn’t even get a photo of the meadowlark but I must admit that this behavior surprised me. Meadowlarks have long and very sharply pointed bills so maybe that potential weapon gave it the extra macho needed to make the attack…