April, 2010

Skydancer

Skydancer
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.
  • Bowland 27 April

    I’ve just spent the day checking part of the estate for harriers, and also ring ouzels (also a bit of a passion of mine). From home I could see that the hills were shrouded with low cloud, but the forecast was for a significant improvement (fool that I am, I believed them!).

    At the car park, packing my rucksack, I realised that I’d not brought anything to drink (more fool!). So it was off to the local shop to buy something, only to discover that I had just 80p to my name. Asking the shop owner how much a particular drink was, his reply being, “90p”, I groaned loudly and asked if he had anything for 80p or less. Amazingly, he said that I could take my chosen drink for that amount! My faith restored in human kindness, off I went.

    In the intervening time, the cloud had lifted and the sun was making tentative signs of breaking through. More joy, the forecast was accurate! I might actually see something. 

     

    Once up onto the fells, a male harrier soon made an appearance, carrying food to its mate. However, the female wasn’t cooperating, and the male circled around for a few minutes looking for her, before disappearing from view. He soon returned, accompanied by the female, and they slowly circled around, climbing higher and higher together. Magic.

    The harrier activity I reported on last time seems to have settled down a little bit in the last few days, and this may be coincidence, but we have also located two further nests, taking the total to seven confirmed nesting attempts.

    This is really pleasing, as this equals last years number of nests. And I’m still hopeful for one, or possibly two, more nests. However, this is just half the story, as of course what actually fledges from the nests is more important than anything else. So we have some way to go yet.

    For the last three years we have operated a harrier nest camera in partnership with Natural England, Lancashire County Council Countryside Service and United Utilities. Last year was a little fraught, as we didn’t have a suitable nest to use until quite late in the season. This year, however, the harriers have been a lot kinder to us, and have nested in a very convenient location. The task for tomorrow is to take the equipment that has been in storage over winter, up onto the fell and roughly lay it out ready for us going ’live’ in a three weeks time.

    Sound easy, but believe me, carting this kind of gear across moorland is no easy job, even with an all terrain vehicle.

  • Bowland 21 April

    Well the last week has been a hive of activity for the harriers, if not for me, sat watching them. If, like us in Bowland, you enjoyed pretty much unbroken sunshine, you can understand why the hen harriers perhaps decided to take advantage of the good weather.

    For over a week they have been sky dancing like mad, sometimes with as many as three birds dancing at the same time! This forms part of their display to prospective mates, and can be done by both sexes, but most often by the males, and most spectacularly too – due to their smaller size than the female, which makes them more agile. In quite a few years now of monitoring breeding hen harriers, I can’t recall such a good year for display.

    It really is brilliant to be able to turn 360 degrees and be able to see hen harriers at virtually all points of the compass. The only sad thing is that whilst there’s a party going on on the United Utilities (UU) estate in Bowland, the rest of upland England is virtually a breeding hen harrier desert…

    However, not all the birds have been displaying: and this is a good thing, as these birds have been getting down to the serious business of nesting!

    Since I last posted, we (that’s the team of RSPB staff & volunteers, and other raptor enthusiasts) have located and confirmed a total of four hen harrier nests on the UU estate. So far, I’m only aware of one other nest in England.

    I’m not a great one for predictions, but we’re hopeful there’ll be a further three or four nests over the next week or two. Touch wood – says he, tapping his head!

    Pete

  • Bowland 13 April

    Time really flies, doesn’t it? It only seems a matter of weeks ago since I was here trying to thinking of interesting things to write. Anyway, it’s spring, the hen harriers are back on the United Utilities estate, and fieldwork is well underway!


    The winter, as in most places, was pretty spectacular in Bowland. In the week before Christmas we measured well over a 35cm of snow in the first batch to fall on us, followed by nearly another 30cm just before Christmas itself. Followed by, yes, you’ve guessed it, even more snow. In fact, there was pretty much continuous snow cover for just over a month. And whilst the snow eventually disappeared from all but the highest ground, the sub-zero night time temperatures continued for nearly another month.


    What effects this might have had on bird populations is already being examined in a wider context, but in Bowland we are just beginning to gathering our anecdotal impressions of the moorland bird populations. My own observations are that wren number s are down, following a decline after the 2008/09 winter. But stonechats numbers are much higher than I anticipated – presumably this partial migrant found some favoured areas to tough out the worst of the winter weather.


    But what of the hen harriers? There is a small wintering population in Bowland, made up of some residents, plus in-comers from elsewhere in the UK. Based on observations by a dedicated few during the harshest weather, these birds largely vacated Bowland, but did begin to return soon after.

    Things were a little slow on the harrier front during March, but the glorious recent weather has really begun to speed the pace of life for all wildlife, including the harriers.


    I’ll bring you up-to-date with things very soon. Promise!


    Pete