August, 2017

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.


Read about our Investigations team, working hard to keep our birds and wildlife safe
  • The end of Sally

    Over the past year Sally has been the ‘poster girl’ for Montagu’s harrier conservation, especially after being filmed by the BBC Autumnwatch programme having a satellite-tag fitted.

    Sally being released by Martin Hughes Games from BBC Autumnwatch

    She was paired with Roger another satellite tagged male Montagu’s harrier and has bred successfully in Norfolk for the past two seasons, raising a total of five juveniles. They are rare birds, in fact the only pair of Montagu’s harriers left in eastern England and one of only four pairs in the UK.

    Sally amazed everyone last winter by travelling the furthest south any tagged Montagu’s harrier has ever gone and wintered in Ghana. This year she timed her return migration to perfection, arriving back in Norfolk at the exact time as Roger and they met up once more over last year’s breeding field – we blogged about this and it featured on a BBC Radio 4 Farming Today broadcast.

    This year they successfully reared three juveniles, from a nest that was fenced from ground predators by the RSPB with landowner co-operation. This species is highly dependent on landowner support as they nest on the ground often in arable crops.
    The three juveniles were fitted with uniquely identifiable colour ringed and started moving away from the nest area two weeks ago. Data from the satellite tags told us that Sally and Roger remained in the wider nest area until last Sunday, when Sally went missing.

    Her satellite tag has been very reliable giving us a daily window into her life. Crossing the Mediterranean, facing inhospitable deserts for days on end and finally reaching her breeding home in Norfolk. So many times we have cheered for Sally when all the odds seemed against her.

    We know she roosted just North of Bircham Tofts, Norfolk on Saturday (5th August 2017) as we have several precise data points during the evening. She was then reliably seen by birdwatcher at mid-day on Sunday (6th August 2017) near her nest site. Finally we received data at 5.25hrs on Sunday (6th August 2017) telling us the tag had good voltage but this reading did not give an accurate location. The programming of her tag meant that we would have expected transmissions into that evening but we received nothing further despite a number of satellites passing overhead.

    Since then we have had no more transmissions and she hasn’t been seen despite searching. Roger has been at the nest site, alone.

    Satellite tags are highly reliable and will continue transmitting signals even when a bird is dead, so long as the tag is in daylight; this enables you to locate the body and tag. In fact, the Dutch Montagu’s’ Harrier Foundation recently located a tag on a dead Montagu’s harrier in Senegal, Africa  over a year after the bird died, as the tag had reliably been transmitting a signal every day.

    Almut Schlaich of the Dutch Montagu's Harrier Foundation showing the recovered tag around a village in Senegal

    Even if a tag is face down when a bird dies it will transmit a signal for several days until the battery runs down. We have checked the predicted satellite passes and we should have had quite a few over the proceeding days even if she had died naturally - we have had nothing from Sally.
    Scientist Raymond Klaassen who has been involved with satellite-tagging of Montagu’s harriers wrote the following blog explaining the excellent reliability of the tags. 

    Sally has become a ‘catastrophic failure’ statistic and Norfolk Police have been informed.  

    In 2014, we lost another satellite-tagged female Montagu’s harrier known as ‘Mo’ near Bircham Common and only two days apart from Sally  

    We are obviously very concerned about what has happened to Sally especially in light of the findings of the recent Scottish Government review of the fates of Scottish satellite-tagged Golden eagles

    This is a major blow for this species in the UK and we are gutted.

    Sally was fitted with a colour ring with the initials 'CP' after Chris Packham

    Sally - you were a remarkable harrier and have given us a clear insight in to the ecology and problems faced by this species.

    Anyone with any information is urged to call Norfolk Police on 101 quoting ref  12815082017.

  • Marsh harrier and nest illegally targeted in North Yorkshire: police appeal for information

    The problems associated with birds of prey trying to breed on grouse moors are all too familiar. So when a marsh harrier nest was found on Denton Moor, North Yorkshire, it was initially cause for celebration. Until the nest was found empty. RSPB Investigations Officer Howard Jones is in search of answers.

    Last weekend saw thousands of people come together for Hen Harrier Day, a series of events across the country co-ordinated to raise awareness for the beleaguered plight of the hen harrier and its continued struggles to breed in the UK uplands due to illegal persecution.

    The plight of the hen harrier and its conflict with land managed for driven grouse shooting is a well trodden story. During 2017, there were just three successful nests from seven breeding attempts in England, despite huge areas of suitable habitat. There were no successful nests on grouse moors.

    As such, it was met with great interest by our team when, in May this year, we managed to pin down a breeding pair of marsh harriers on a driven grouse moor in North Yorkshire. Denton Moor has the famous Ilkley Moor to the south and sits at the southern end of the Nidderdale AONB which has long running troubles with raptor persecution.

    North Yorkshire has now firmly taken a grip over the title for ‘Worst County in England for raptor persecution’ as confirmed incidents occur with depressing regularity. During the last ten years, within five miles of the marsh harrier nesting attempt, we know of at least nine red kites which have been illegally poisoned and a further three shot.

    The marsh harrier is normally associated with the lowlands of south-east England and not a typical breeder in the uplands. Formerly extinct in the UK due to human persecution, the species had further problems with agricultural pesticides in the food chain and by 1971 there was just one breeding pair.  Encouragingly, it has since rallied to around 400 pairs. In lowland North Yorkshire, there have been a few breeding pairs in recent years, but you really have to wade through the history books to go back to when the species was last recorded breeding in the uplands of the county. Perhaps this wasn't the harrier species you'd expect, but this was still a harrier trying to breed on a driven grouse moor.

    A male marsh harrier (Courtesy of Graham Catley)

    In May 2017 I visited the nest site with a colleague under the authority of a Schedule 1 license, locating the nest after the female bird came off. The nest was checked and it was confirmed to contain five eggs.

    The five marsh harrier eggs in a nest on Denton Moor, North Yorkshire during May 2017

    A camera was installed to monitor the nest, which was no mean feat as my colleague was in the midst of a developing a severe fever during the installation of the equipment! We then moved away from the nest site and watched the female return to the nest. We returned on the 19 May, and though there were a pair of marsh harriers in the general area, there was no activity at the nest site.  When checked, we found the nest was empty with all the eggs gone. What had gone on?

    Back in the office, we anxiously reviewed the video footage. Initially, the pair were displaying typical marsh harrier nesting behaviour and things seemed to be progressing well. Rather annoyingly the poor weather moved the vegetation slightly and partially obscured the camera image before things took a turn for the worse and we saw exactly what had gone on - and why the nest had failed. On 17 May we started to see a disturbing series of events with regular human activity at and around the nest site. At 12.40 hours on that day, a bang was heard off camera and the female bird came off the nest alarm calling. Another bang followed the revving of a vehicle and a voice shouting. At 12.42, an armed individual appeared on camera walking to the nest, stands over the nest, then walks back in the direction he came from. The bird returns to the nest, however the unwanted attention had only just begun.

    At 13.56 hours, the female left the nest again, this time immediately followed by a volley of four gunshots. After a few moments later two armed men appear on camera with their faces covered.  This clearly appeared to be an attempt to shoot the female bird leaving the nest. They continued walking in the direction of where the female had flown, going out of view of the camera, before shortly returning and going to the nest. One man bends down at the nest and as he leaves a white object, believed to be at least one marsh harrier egg, can be seen in his hand.

    Two armed men leaving the marsh harrier nest, male on the right believed to be carrying at least one marsh harrier egg.

    Conversation can then be heard between the two men, where one expresses surprise, with some fairly colourful language, about how much down was in the nest. After more human activity around the site, at 09.41 hours on the following day, a single armed individual visits the nest site, bends down, and then leaves carrying a white object.  Again, it is believed this was the removal of one or more eggs from the nest.  It is abundantly clear these individuals are not egg collectors, and that this was a deliberate attempt to target the site to prevent the birds breeding.  A video with a summary of events can be seen on either of the following links 


    This shocking video evidence was passed onto North Yorkshire police, and we are grateful for the efforts of Wildlife Crime Officer PC Bill Hickson, and the support from the Rural Taskforce, with the investigation of this matter. North Yorkshire Police clearly recognise the continuing problem of raptor persecution in their force area and are making to determined efforts to investigate such cases.

    Within the bigger picture, this is yet further evidence, were it needed, as to what happens to harriers trying to breed on a driven grouse moor. This continues to damage the reputation of all shooting. The status quo is unacceptable. Introducing measures such as vicarious liability, already in place in Scotland, and the licensing of driven grouse moor estates is so obviously needed to create more accountability within the shooting industry. This needs to be coupled with using every tool currently available in the box, whether it is revoking firearm certificates from offenders, custodial sentences in the worst cases or withdrawing subsidies from estates in receipt of rural payments that commit wildlife crime.

    The people on our video footage may have been feeling pretty smug believing their criminal actions had been unseen - this needs to change. We understand the police have interviewed two people to date, but getting a positive identification on those shown in the video footage, or any other related information, would help a great deal towards the ultimate aim of getting a prosecution in court. This is where you may be able to help and all calls will be treated in confidence. If you have any information in relation to this incident then please get in touch with North Yorkshire police on 101 quoting the job reference 165 27 05 2017 or call the RSPB Investigations team confidentially on 01767 693474.

  • Bad news at the bee-eaters

    Since Tuesday the behaviour of the bee-eaters has changed markedly and it appears that at least two of the three nests have failed.

    Instead of individual birds regularly flying into the nest holes with food the birds are now increasingly staying as a tight group of six birds.
    We have reviewed the nest camera footage and the frequency of nest visits leading up to Tuesday is also well below the 30 visiting per hour expected at this stage in the cycle.
    There is no sign of any disturbances at the nests and despite foxes being present in the quarry these have been successfully deterred during night time hours.
    Reviewing the footage hasn’t shown any sign of Stoats/Weasel activity and all the six adults are alive.
    There has been an increase in Sparrowhawk sightings and a recently fledged Kestrel family is now in residence in the same part of the quarry as the bee-eater nest so that may have had an impact.

    We suspect this is a natural failure probably linked to food provision for the young . Despite being able to lay up to 9 eggs, bee-eaters typically hatch 3-4 eggs and if a helper is not assigned to a nest then it is only expected that 1-2 young will survive, even in good weather with a profusion of insect prey.
    Yesterday the third nest had an adult bee-eater sitting in it and later in the day this bird was taking food back to the nest but it is clearly operating alone. Last night the adult birds did not roost in their nest holes.

    This morning no bee-eaters have been seen associating with the nests.

    If it is proven the nests have failed then everyone associated with the project will clearly be absolutely gutted.

    We are continuing to monitor the situation and will keep updates coming. We will make a call about the car park in due course.

    Colonising species suffer these ups and down but that doesn't make it any easier for us humans.

    Mark Thomas