April, 2009


Get the latest news on our hen harrier conservation work, including the five-year Hen Harrier Life+ project.

Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers

Follow the efforts of RSPB staff during the breeding season, as they attempt to monitor and protect one of England's rarest breeding birds of prey - the hen harrier.
  • Northumberland: Skydancing in the Wind

    Our hen harriers have given us much to puzzle over in the last few weeks. There is a temptation to speculate on what is not happening, which can be a head-spinning exercise. Picking up on the clues right in front of us is more telling. In particular, the behaviour of the male bird is significant.

    The vigour of his skydances, his height and the frequency of displays can all help to make sense of the bigger picture. For instance, if there is no female in the immediate area, he may dance higher in the sky.

    So what's our boy up to?

    He hunts in the wider area over rough grassland and heather moorland, checking in every few hours with a fly-by and, on a number of occasions, a skydance. His skydancing has been fairly energetic at times which is a good sign. What does all this mean? Well, clearly this area is his patch and he considers it a pretty fine place for nesting - which it is. He is very much king of the castle here. Of course, there is no better location from which to monitor one's land than from the highest point. There he will sit in the sun and rain for an hour or two, just watching.

    Though the drama of his dance is affected by the proximity of a female and/or the presence of another male, a blustery day can help transform a lazy skydance into something more thrilling. Under such conditions, he can really make a spectacle of himself, which is of course the point.

    Last Sunday afternoon the wind got up and our male bird took lift out of the heather. The updraft pulled him from the vegetation and he was soon traversing the skyline in great tumbling loops. The increased velocity and added spin on the turn was impressive, and he seemed to know it!

    I only hope his performance wasn't wasted on just me!

  • Northumberland: Speculation Mounts

    As you can imagine, it has been a pretty anxious time for us in North Tynedale. There is always the concern that something might happen to our birds as there has been human persecution on the site in recent years. Could something sinister have happened to our girl?
    After Easter weekend, the weather turned, as reported in my last blog. Through the swirling mist, we got a few ghostly glimpses of a ringtail – probably a female – quietly hunting over the whole estate. If it was our bird, she wasn’t behaving like a female harrier with eggs.
    And the male? He hadn’t been seen since Easter Monday, but as soon as the first sun rays in a week hit the hills on Friday evening (17 April), he was back and skydancing.
    “Fickle” has been used a lot over the last week to describe hen harriers. Perhaps that’s not fair. We may not always be able to make sense of their behaviour, but there will be logic to it that we cannot appreciate or know. And, I suppose, that’s what makes observing these birds so enthralling – the unexpected skydancing, the quick delivery of food (blink and you'll miss it), and yes, even when they go AWOL.
    A Secret Nest?
    Over last weekend (17 April) the good weather continued so we monitored the hills from dawn to dusk. By keeping close watch over the whole of the site, we would be able to confirm whether there was a secret nest. When the female hen harrier is incubating eggs, her mate will only visit a few times during the day with food. We could easily miss these food passes – it is, after all, quite a large area with many hillocks obscuring the line of sight and plenty of healthy, thick heather suitable for nesting in.
    Our male bird impressed us with his skydancing on Saturday and Sunday but he did not lead us to the female. She did, however, make a brief appearance which was reassuring. By Sunday afternoon we could fairly confidently say that it is unlikely there is a nest. For now.
    We cannot explain the change in behaviour of our harriers but we have no reason to think they weren't responding to some natural force. Perhaps after the hardest winter in 18 years, the male bird could not find enough food during the critical stage around egg-laying (the female needs to be pumped with protein during this time). Or, could a fox have destroyed their nest? Who knows.
    But, it is still early days and we are hopeful that the fortunes of the Northumberland hen harriers could change - again.
  • Northumberland: Absent Without Leave

    Easter Sunday: Hot and sunny, skylarks singing, early swallows flitting through the heather valley, buzzards circling, kestrels suspended above forest clearings, peregrines happily on eggs. And the harriers? It was as if they had never been here. No shrieking for food from the female and no sign of Mister.

    Easter Monday: Male harrier back on site, skydancing urgently. Speculation mounts. Is our female now incubating a full clutch and the male is trying to woo a second mate?

    Just when we needed fine whether to monitor the site closely, thick fog rolls in and doesn’t budge for two days. Visibility is thirty metres, fifty when a gust of wind momentarily clears the air. We sit in the fog and listen. And listen. But don’t hear anything.