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!
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.