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Skydancers on the Dee

Last modified: 24 November 2014

Female hen harrier flying low

Image: Graham Catley

Visitors to the RSPB’s Parkgate reserve on the Dee Estuary are being given the chance to see England’s most threatened bird of prey in action.

The reserve is hosting Skydancers on the Dee, a series of monthly events offering nature lovers the opportunity to experience hen harriers at their winter roost site.

Hen harriers breed in the uplands and are famous for the male’s spectacular aerobatic spring courtship display known as skydancing. The birds spend the winter on lower ground, often on marshes, and the Dee Estuary has long been one of the best places to see these remarkable birds.

Sadly, hen harriers are on the brink of extinction in England as a breeding bird. This year there were only four breeding pairs in the whole of England. In 2013, there was not a single successful nest in the country, despite scientists concluding there is sufficient habitat for more than 300 pairs.

Independent research has shown that ongoing illegal killing and disturbance associated with the grouse moor industry is responsible for the plight of the hen harrier.

Dan Trotman, the RSPB’s Visitor Development Officer on the Dee Estuary, said: “It is a real privilege to be able to see these magnificent birds hunting and roosting on the estuary. I hope that when our visitors see them in action, they will be inspired to help us save them from extinction in England as a breeding bird before it is too late.

“The saltmarsh at Parkgate is where the harriers traditionally roost but they roam some distance during the day to feed; recently we’ve been treated to fantastic views of one, sometimes two, hen harriers hunting close to the reception hide at Burton Mere Wetlands, so it’s well worth a trip there too.”

There is also a giant hen harrier spending the winter over at Burton Mere Wetlands. Harry is a six-foot male hen harrier, created by local young nature enthusiast Findlay Wilde. The large-scale model bird has been touring the country to raise awareness about hen harrier conservation. This year, it has made appearances at Hen Harrier Day in the Peak District, Bird Fair in Rutland and mostly recently, on BBC Autumnwatch at RSPB Leighton Moss in Lancashire.

Skydancers on the Dee is on Sunday 30 November from noon until dusk, at the “Donkey Stand” on The Parade in Parkgate. There are further events on 21 December 2014, 25 January 2015, 22 February and 29 March. All events are free and visitors can drop in any time. 

Skydancers on the Dee is part of Skydancer, a four-year RSPB project aimed at protecting and conserving nesting hen harriers in the English uplands. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and United Utilities with additional support from the Forestry Commission. For more information, visit 

How you can help

In 2013, hen harriers failed to nest in England for the first time since the 1960s. In 2014 there were three nests. But there is enough habitat for 300 breeding pairs - let's act together to put this right.

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