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Sky Dancing - A Rare Sight

Northern Harrier courtship! And other raptors do it, too.

Out in the arid West, miles north of Winnemucca, a small caravan of birdwatchers searches for raptors along a distant ridgeline of basalt and sage. Nearby, a circle of green, created by pivot irrigation, attracts Northern Harriers that hunt over fields and marshes. Then, field trip leader Harry Fuller calls out: “We got a male Harrier ‘sky dancing’ over the pivot on the right up here!” In flight, a Northern Harrier is creating a high-amplitude sine wave, rolling on its back, turning like a corkscrew through the air. It’s part of a courtship display. Many raptors perform sky dances, but perhaps none so amazing as the harriers.

Thanks to Bill Schmoker for this composite photo.

Full Transcript

Transcript: 

BirdNote®

Sky Dancing

Written by Chris Peterson

This is BirdNote!
Out in the arid West, miles north of Winnemucca, hawks and Harleys* cruise the Great Basin.    
[Two Harleys* pass by]
A small caravan of birdwatchers searches for raptors along a distant ridgeline of basalt and sage. Wild horses graze up there, their silhouettes framed by a blue sky.
Nearby, a circle of green, created by pivot irrigation, attracts Northern Harriers that hunt over fields and marshes.
Today, our group’s about to see a rare sight.
Field trip leader Harry Fuller calls it out:
Fuller: “We got a male Harrier ‘sky dancing!’ Male Harrier ‘sky dancing’ over the pivot on the right up here!
In flight, a raptor is creating a high amplitude sine wave, rolling on its back, turning like a corkscrew through the air.
Raptor expert Dick Ashford immediately recognizes this as the sky dance of a male Northern Harrier.
Ashford: “The bird literally is on its back, doing a barrel roll, and it turns its head, just like these divers in the Olympics…
Field trip participant: “So he’s going head over tail or wing over wing?”
Ashford: “Wing over wing…he’s doing a barrel roll. Yah, head over tail would be a good one! Pigeons do that… So this is a really rare sighting… I’ll guarantee you’ll be amongst the small group of people who’ve ever seen it.”
Many raptors perform sky dances. Come see for yourself, at our website, birdnote.org.
###
All sounds recorded by C. Peterson.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org   August 2016/2019     Narrator: Michael Stein

ID#          skydance-NOHA-01-2012-08-03    skydance-NOHA-01

* Editor's note: these sounds are not those of Harleys but another type of motorcycle. The distinctive sound that a Harley makes is explained here. And thanks to an extremely attentive listener for this information!

Klamath Bird Observatory; ** Dick Ashford, President of the board of KBO; *Harry Fuller, Towhee Tours: Birding Oregon and California

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