Tuesday May 18, 0735 and warm for the time of day. Watching over the North Tynedale site, I was bathed in sunlight and out of the wind. Suddenly, three dots close together in the distance - tussling raptors. It'll be the nesting peregrine pair and a buzzard, I thought, but the white rump of the latter shining out like a beacon through my binoculars proved me wrong. It was an adult female hen harrier. After sparring with the peregrines it soared up over the local high point as if in triumph and with a couple of dives and switchbacks gave me the closest thing to skydancing that I've seen at North Tynedale this year. A wonderful sight, tempered only by the realisation that, in my experience at least, there always seems to be an element of desperation when an adult female dances alone. Yes - I'm sorry to have to tell you that the North Tynedale site lacks a breeding pair of hen harriers, and it's getting close to the now-or-never time.

The season began well enough. As early as March 10 there were two male hen harriers on site, an impressive, gleaming mature adult and a sub-adult, still with a little brown on it but handsome nonetheless. The former saw off the latter on the same day, soared a lot despite the breeze and the bitter cold, but would not dance. He proceeded to make an appearance just about daily for the next month. Unfortunately, over the following month or so his appearances gradually tailed off to nothing, and in all that time we never had a single confirmed sighting of an adult female hen harrier. It seems at first that he was prepared to hold and defend territory, but he could only have stayed on his tod for so long before casting his net wider.

Sightings of females have only recently begun to pick up both here and further afield in the region, but now sightings of males are rare. It seems that up until now the fates have decreed that we can have males or females on site but not both together. I suppose the root cause of the problem comes down to critically low numbers in the north of England - coupled with the wealth of potential breeding sites across the region. Whatever and wherever, I just hope that as many pair up as possible: "never the twain" would be tragic. It may not be too late for North Tynedale, though. A bitter and protracted winter has given us a very late spring - I was snowed on as recently as May 14!

As you know, prolonged watching always brings rewards, of which a few you couldn't have hoped to expect. Nine species of raptor (hen harrier, buzzard, goshawk, sparrowhawk, peregrine, kestrel, merlin, red kite and osprey), three species of owl (barn, tawny and long-eared) and hordes of charming redpoll, siskin, goldcrest and crossbill - some of the latter with juveniles in February! And I’m expecting nightjar to arrive any day now.

So all-in-all more than enough incentives to put the hours in for the volunteer watchers. No 24/7 operation to date this year of course, but most daylight hours are covered. The small numbers of RSPB and Natural England volunteers have been splendid - dedicated, discrete and professional. The Forestry Commission, whose land the site is on, has also provided invaluable support, facilitating the project and providing me with an office at their Bellingham headquarters. As ever we've taken a softly-softly approach to surveillance, keeping well back from the potential breeding area, happily engaging with visitors coming in for any reason and just letting nature take its course for all North Tynedale wildlife. As for the harriers, well it is late but never say never……

Stephen Temperley