February 3, 2009

What Happens on the Way to Wendover...

Tim and I drove to Wendover this weekend to bet on the big game. And, as usual, I lost all my money. I did win one decent bet, though, when I took a tip from a drunk guy in the sports book and placed $20 on the Cardinals scoring more than 20 points. Thanks, drunk dude, whoever you are. The $18.75 I made on that bet helped me play slots for about five minutes.

I am considerably unlucky when it comes to gambling, but I counted myself a lucky birder on the drive to Wendover when I saw a very cool bird at 80 mph. (I was the one going 80 mph, just so we’re clear.) The bird was heading east along the side of the freeway as we were traveling west. It was a hawk, and I’m usually not so great at identifying those. But this hawk was different. Even while passing it at 80 mph, the way it was flying—and where it was flying—were pretty big clues. And then, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw its very distinctive rear end and knew—it was Your BOTW, the Northern harrier.

Fact: The Northern harrier is a medium-sized hawk with long wings and a long tail and a bright, white rump. (So bright and white, you could see it in a rearview mirror on the freeway.) Now, we need to get into coloring at this point, but that brings me to one of the reasons harriers are unique…
Fact: The Northern harrier is one of the few hawks in which the sexes look very different. They share similar body shapes and that distinct white rump, but the male has a light gray back and hood while the female is a dark, mottled brown. The female is also considerably bigger. This great photo I found on Flickr shows just how different they look. The male, which is sometimes referred to as the "gray ghost," is in the front. (We passed a male, if you were wondering. You totally weren’t though, huh?)

Photo credit: Bob Lewis

Fact: If you get a chance to see a Northern harrier for longer than three seconds, you’ll notice it has stiff feathers around its face known as facial disks (making its head look much like an owl). These facial disks help it listen for prey in fields and undergrowth. (Most hawks just hunt by sight.)
Fact: Now, if a bird uses hearing to help locate prey, you know it’s not going to be 100 or 200 feet in the air while it’s hunting. (This was my first clue in identifying my Wendover bird.) The Northern harrier flies extremely low to the ground, often over fields and marshes, in a very distinct, slow glide, occasionally wheeling sharply. It will even hover before pouncing on prey. This video captures its beautiful flight very well, so please forgive the music. (Most videos out on YouTube and elsewhere could barely keep up with these birds. Please be patient if this takes a while to load.)

Fact: The Northern harrier mostly hunts rodents, like field mice and voles, but it is also known to take small songbirds and waterfowl.
Fact: A duck is a lot bigger than a field mouse, obviously, so harriers sometimes deal with the size issue by drowning a duck before taking it.
Fact: The Northern harrier is often a polygynous breeder, with up to five or six females breeding with a single male. (Another fact that makes harriers unique among hawks.)
Fact: The male Northern harrier will attempt to take care of his entire harem throughout the egg laying and incubation process, bringing food to all of the females and their young after hatching. Fortunately for him, female Northern harriers in a single harem will generally nest close to each other.
Fact: The male Northern harrier attracts his mate or mates by performing an elaborate sky-dancing display. He will also often give the female a gift of food right before copulation.
Fact: The Northern harrier nests on the ground in tall, dense clumps of vegetation. It will defend its nest if you get too close by giving a high-pitched kek and/or diving at your head.
Fact: According to the Nevada Gaming Commission, the average slot machine payout last year was 94%. According to my calculations, the average payout for any slot machine I play is about 3%. According to common sense, the fact that I continue to gamble despite those odds is sort of stupid. According to my calendar, I plan to return to Wendover in early July.

This has been Your BOTW.


Camille said...

What a playa' bird. Dancing and dinner to butter you up, then before you know it, he's hooked up with half a dozen of your friends. Smooth mister grey ghost Northern harrier, very smooth.

Tim said...

I'm still a little shocked Amy didn't slam on the brakes and make a U turn to follow the bird back toward SLC. She showed a great deal of restraint, but I could tell she was thinking about it.

Nice BOTW.

doug said...

I have a bright, white rump too, though I doubt anyone would be able to identify it in their rear view mirror on the freeway.

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