Winter Raptor ID

Identifying Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, and Short-eared Owls

All photos on this webpage are copyrighted, and are used here by permission of the photographer, Gordon Ellmers, Fort Edward, NY Many thanks to Gordie for allowing our Audubon chapter to use his photos in an effort to educate the public about wintering raptors, and as an aid for volunteer surveyors and new birders to become more familiar with these species.

Northern Harriers – Note the plumage differences below between sexes and ages; the adult male can be mistaken for a gull from a distance, his gray mantle above and white wings and body below with black wingtips, have earned him the nickname “Gray Ghost;” the female is brown above, light, with streaking, below; juveniles resemble adult females with a darker brown head; however, they have a rusty or rufous wash, with streaks, on the underside. All plumages have a white rump patch that is conspicuous in flight. Note also the owl-like face. When perched, this bird will often be low or on the ground; it may be seen flying low over fields searching for prey or hovering as it waits for the right moment to dive.

Photos of Male Northern Harriers


Photos of Female Northern Harriers

Northern Harrier (L)
and Rough-legged Hawk (R)
Northern Harrier (L)
and Rough-legged Hawk (R)

Rough-legged Hawks – There are many plumage variations in this species; light– and dark–morph birds will also vary by sex.

All adult light–morph birds will show a dark patch at bend of underwing, dark wingtips and trailing edge to the underwing, and a dark sub–terminal band on the tail. Wings show longer than tail when perched, and birds will show a varied amount of barring on the breast— sometimes showing a solid dark brown bib.

All dark–morph birds will have silvery flight feathers on the underside with dark coverts; when perched will look all dark above—the males black; the females dark brown. Compare the plumages of these two color morphs below.

Photos of Rough-legged Hawks – light-morph


Photos of Rough-legged Hawks – dark-morph

Perched birds show overall dark coloration


While soaring birds show unmistakable underwing patterns


Short-eared Owls – studying Gordie’s photos below is the best way to familiarize yourself with this species. Note the body shape in flight in the first two pictures below – wide, flat head, no neck, body tapers to a point at the tail. Wings are wide and rounded, brown above but very light underneath with a dark patch at the bend. At close range, the facial disc and body shape make this species conspicuous; at long distances it can be mistaken for a harrier as it works the field in search of prey. This bird looks more like a giant moth in flight; the harrier exhibits smoother flight and gliding actions of a hawk. Also of interest is the variation in the facial disc—see the fifth and sixth photos below and note how the disc is “open” in the photo where the bird is alert and “closed”—almost a heart shape— where the bird is resting.

Photos of Short-eared Owls