Apart from being a particularly graceful bird, the Montagu's harrier also has place of pride… or maybe I should rather say “humility” in my repertoire of birding stories… I saw my first Montagu’s earlier this year near Devon, a female bird that was first reported by Niall and which I twitched within the same week in exactly the same agricultural plot as reported by him. She sat on the ground, from where she surveyed the surrounding areas of low cereal vegetation for prey. When she took to the air, it was with powerful and elegant wing beats which gave an impression of buoyancy and effortlessness. In true harrier fashion it searched the countryside, flying low, generally holding its wings in an upwardly inclined manner. I got a number of reasonable photographs of the bird from which the ID could be confirmed.Large viewLarge view
Sexual dimorphism is particularly apparent in the plumage of Circus pygargus
. Adult males are characterised by their overall pale grey plumage contrasting with black wingtips. Compared with other harriers this species has characteristic black bands along the secondaries, both above and below the wing and rusty streaks on belly and flanks. So, when I came across a male Montagu's harrier during an atlassing exercise near Cornelia in the Free State earlier this week, I nearly overturned my car in an effort to get my camera ready for a photograph! The bird was battling into a strong wind, making slow progress… it was going to cross over the nose of the Landrover! I anticipated the bird’s flight path and drove off the road to give me a good angle to work with through the side window…Large viewLarge view
The harrier eventually made it across the road and my angle through the window became too small. That is when I realised the error of my ways! The Landy wouldn’t follow: I had driven into a small stream and was thoroughly stuck in the mud! Some two hours later a farmer on a tractor came to my rescue. Fortunately he didn’t ask too many pertinent questions…
The Montagu's harrier is a long distance migrant. The few birds we see here are from Eurasia. Their diet consists mainly of small rodents, small birds and large insects hunted in areas of low or sparse vegetation. Prey is caught while flying along fixed routes at low heights and constant low speeds, as is typical of harriers. The flight of Montagu's harriers is considered lighter and more dexterous than other harriers enabling it to take more agile prey. When possible it often follows the edges of vegetation to shield it from the sight of potetial prey and it takes them by surprise after a short stoop. Fast running animals and flying birds are chased over a short distance.
This species can be found throughout most of the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is an uncommon visitor to South Africa.