The female is brown with a white underside with brown streaks. The male is gray and white and can appear ghost-like in flight. They have a broad range from tundra to southern marsh and field, but spend summer months in the north and retreat to the south for food in winter. So we tend to see more of them in our area in the winter months. It seems to me that we have had more of them around this winter as I see them all the time in The Field and almost everywhere I go in our area. check out the fields as you travel in your car and it won't be long before you see one skimming the brush tops, sometimes just inches above the ground.
They feed by sight and by their excellent hearing which is aided by the owl-like flat face, feeding on small birds and mammals, especially voles. Flying low over the ground, they can stop almost immediately and quickly grab their prey. It is fascinating to watch them because of their flight behavior which ranges from swift gliding to dives and rolls, to almost appearing to float above the field. They eat on the ground, consuming the prey immediately.
They nest on the ground in thick brush. Males are polygamous, mating with up to 5 females, and taking responsibility for feeding all families. For a full description of their range, behavior, breeding, etc., go to the Cornell Bird Site.
I have been able to get a few very nice pics of these acrobats this winter, taken at six different sites from the Greenville area to Mattamuskeet. There is a sequence of shots showing a pair fighting over food. Notice that their talons are not closed, just pushing against each other. They will not hurt each other and the fight is mostly bluff and bluster. See below.
SEE GALLERY BELOW. CLICK ANY PIC TO ENLARGE. USE ARROWS TO MOVE BACK & FORTH