Spotted Harrier

Circus assimilis

Spotted Harrier. Photo: Peter Day

Spotted Harriers are the dry country equivalent of the Swamp Harrier, which is common over wetlands in the south and east. They have the similar hunting technique of slow circling and searching the ground beneath. There is a clearly marked rufous facial disc indicating that they, like many other harriers, use an acute sense of hearing in foraging. It also makes them look decidedly owl-like especially from the front.

Spotted Harriers prey on terrestrial birds such as quails, larks and pipits; on mammals such as mice, bandicoots and rabbits; on reptiles, particularly lizards; on large insects, and, sometimes on carrion. Their favoured hunting technique is the slow systematic quartering of an area followed by a swift dive to the ground. If the prey is flushed it may be caught after a short chase.

Spotted Harriers mainly breed in the spring in South Australia (September and October). Pairs are monogamous and occupy large non-overlapping territories. The nest is a platform of sticks, lined with green leaves and placed in the fork of a living tree. The normal clutch size is three with an average of 1.3 nestlings fledging at 36-43 days.



Males and females are alike in appearance, but the female is about 40% larger than the male by weight. The adults are handsome birds with mainly grey upperparts and rufous underparts. The feathers of the back and wings are grey, with black areas near the ends, which have light grey edges. The rich rufous underparts, including the leading edge of the underwings, are heavily spotted with white. The tail has thick bands of black on both the top and on the underside. The middles of the underwings are silvery with narrow black bands, culminating with a bold, black trailing edge. The fingers are long and black. The facial disc is rufous. The cere, iris, legs and feet are pale yellow. Juveniles are largely buffy with brown streaks. The trailing two-thirds of the upperwing are black with the tail strongly banded black. The middle of the underwing like that of adults is whitish with a bold black trailing edge.

Where to find it

Spotted Harriers can potentially be found throughout South Australia, but they favour sparsely wooded grasslands, and savannas in the drier parts of the state. They are also quite common in wheat growing areas. They need trees in which to nest and while they will occasionally hunt over wetlands, like Swamp Harriers, these are usually avoided.

Spotted Harriers are partly migratory with some birds wintering in the tropics, although generally they are sedentary, only moving to wetter parts in droughts.

The Spotted harrier is monotypic with no sub-species.