Last updated on 1-Nov 2017
The Swamp Harrier is one of the few raptors in Australia that makes a regular seasonal migration. To escape the rigours of the Tasmanian winter, harriers often make the hazardous journey across Bass Strait to spend the cooler months on the mainland, before returning to breed in late winter and spring. In autumn, parts of south-eastern Australia often seem to be brimming with harriers, slowly quartering up and down over wetlands and rank farmland in search of rabbits and smaller forms of prey.
The Swamp Harrier is a large slim-bodied raptor (bird of prey), with long slender legs and a long tail, rounded at the tip. It is mainly dark brown above and the white rump is prominent. It has an owl-like face mask. The wings are long and broad, with 5 ‘fingers’ on the wing tips in flight. Females are larger with rufous underparts, while the smaller male is lighter underneath. The legs and eyes are yellow. This species has a slow sailing flight on up-swept wings, flying low over water. It is also known as the Marsh Harrier.
The Swamp Harrier is widespread in Australasia and the South Pacific. It is the commonest raptor in New Zealand
The Swamp Harrier is found in terrestrial wetlands and open country of tropical and temperate Australia and New Zealand. It is mainly seen in fresh or salt wetlands, often in deep swamps with emergent reeds and over open water. In New Zealand it is more widely found, not just in wetlands.
This species is also known as the Marsh Harrier.
Swamp Harriers are easily disturbed at the nest and will abandon their eggs and even downy young if approached by people.
Swamp Harriers hunt for birds and eggs, large insects, frogs, reptiles and small mammals up to the size of hares or rabbits. When hunting they ‘quarter’, which means that they systematically search for prey by gliding low to the ground or water, then drop down onto their quarry. In New Zealand, Swamp Harriers often feed on carrion (dead animals).
The nest of the Swamp Harrier is made of straw and grasses, hidden above the water in dense reeds in a swamp or in crops or long grasses near water. They usually nest in single pairs. The female incubates and broods the young, while the male hunts for food. He transfers the food to the female in the air, before she feeds it to the young.