Four birds with “Northern” in their name are regular visitors in my part of New Jersey. The Northern cardinal is ubiquitous at home, and the Northern mockingbird and Northern flicker are regulars in the neighborhood. But the most thrilling of all is the Northern harrier.
To find a harrier, all I need to do is drive two and a half miles to my favorite hot spot, Mercer Meadows, either on the Pole Farm or Reed-Bryan Farm sides. Throughout the year with the exception of the warmest months, you have a fair to excellent chance of seeing at least one harrier swooping over the meadows in search of voles and other prey.
The first one I saw was three years ago in mid-February, and it was my wife who spotted her on the ground on one of the big fields that you approach as you walk into the Pole Farm area from the Cold Soil Road parking lot.
Most often, I see the harriers in flight, and they are instantly recognizable by their white rumps contrasting with their darker plumage elsewhere. The harriers often take a break between hunting forays by perching on a tree limb or sitting atop the bird boxes on posts jutting out of the fields.
If you want to see a harrier for yourself, you have a roughly equal chance on either the Pole Farm or Reed Bryan sides of the park. If you have one shot at visiting, I recommend the Pole Farm. The harriers fly during the day, and I’ve seen most of them between sunrise and 10 a.m., and in late afternoon leading into sunset. (I don’t generally go in the middle of the day, because of other commitments and also because the light for photography isn’t as warm as it is at early and late hours.)
Both sides of the park have large fields covered with native grasses most of the year, although at certain points the grasses will be mowed down to promote new growth. Each year there typically are controlled burns on several acres, alternating patches year to year, which also promotes new growth. Grass or no grass, the harriers know they’ll find prey every day.
Most of the harriers I’ve seen at Mercer Meadows are females, but I have caught a few glimpses of the more furtive male, aka “The Gray Ghost.” I’ve only been able to snap a single photo of one, and it doesn’t do the bird justice.
I’ve been visiting the park long enough to know that patterns of the birds vary from season to season, year to year. From November of 2020 through February of 2021, scores of birders and photographers came out to the park in the hour before sunset to observe and take pictures of several harriers cruising over the fields. From last fall to now, only a few photographers come out for harrier shots, if that. Although I’ve seen more than one harrier a few times in recent months, typically I see only one.
But even one is a thrill.