The four chicks being filmed for the Beacon Fell visitors centre are becoming more independent by the day before they fully take to the wing. They are spending less time in the nest now, making short flights of a few hundred meters, mastering their landing techniques and learning how to receive food passes. Food is still being dropped and taken in to the nest by the parents, but this is becoming a lot less frequent now.
Last week I went up to the nest with Stephen Murphy from the Natural England Hen Harrier Recovery Project to ring and fit satellite transmitters to the chicks. We succeeded with three of the four but the fourth got away – already able to fly and camouflage itself well!
Two of the three were females, the other (obviously) a male. At this age, to the unfamiliar eye, males and females look identical but there are a couple of subtle differences. The female, being a bigger bird (600g compared with 300-400g of a male) has much larger legs and has brown eyes in comparison with the smoky grey eyes of the male. Having studied the recorded nest footage, I’m also pretty certain that the fourth chick is also a female.
It wont be long now until they leave the nest for good, so if you can find the opportunity, head over to the Lancashire County Council’s Beacon Fell visitors centre to view some of their final antics along with the RSPB and LCC volunteers who are on hand to talk about what's going on. There is still lots of entertaining action to be seen, especially as they tussle for the food drops and check out their reflections in the camera!
Our hen harrier hopes are dashed for this year folks, but of course this is just one site. While we are naturally gutted, what is not just disappointing but also downright alarming is the apparent absence of breeding hen harriers anywhere in Northumberland and Cumbria this year. To my knowledge, there’s only been one attempt by a pair anywhere north of the Forest of Bowland, and that was unsuccessful. Make no mistake - hen harriers are in serious trouble in twenty-first century England.
North Tynedale had several individual birds turn up between early March and end of May, but female and male were never seen together and none showed a serious inclination to hold territory or display. Similar in pattern and identical in outcome to last year. A mature male defended and displayed over a territory a few miles north of our site, but he didn't pull in three weeks, gave up and moved on. Frustration all around.
Doom and gloom aside, as this will my last blog, I must tell you about the not inconsiderable compensations of coordinating the North Tynedale project this year. The dedication and professionalism of the Forestry Commission staff were outstanding, even to the extent of them preventing an apparent attempt by four persons to steal three peregrine nestlings. Their support was and remains invaluable. As for the volunteers, well the project would simply grind to a halt without them. Never once failing to turn up for a shift, they never faltered and, like me, never lost hope until the bitter end - dedication personified.
And I must not forget to point out that the bird life around here yields rich rewards for us watchers. No less than thirteen species of birds of prey were encountered on or immediately around the site (long-eared owl, tawny owl, barn owl, hen harrier, buzzard, goshawk, sparrowhawk, red kite, osprey, peregrine, kestrel, merlin, and even hobby). The peregrine young have now all successfully fledged and are currently in their highly entertaining "juvenile delinquent" stage. Two nightjars were seen once and heard more often, churring away on favourable nights in June. We had healthy populations of skylarks, meadow pipits, stonechats, wheatears, crossbills, siskins, redpolls, goldfinches, chaffinches, tits, wrens and willow warblers (as you may have guessed by these lists the site provides quite a range of habitats). It was a privilege also to have a pair of ravens nesting on site - the first time for more a decade I may add.
So what more can I say in the end? Well, my job is to monitor hen harriers and yes, it is painful to watch over their decline. So much room for them out there but so few of them about more or less sums it up. Just what is happening on heather moorland habitats in England that could lead to this paradox, this crisis? I'll leave you to think about that. As to next year - it can only get better... can't it?
I just wanted to post a quick message to let you all know the good news from yesterday. I went and checked the fourth Hen harrier nest and found that it contains 5 chicks! Fantastic news and just what we were needing, bringing us up to a total of 12 young in 4 nests.
When I approach a harrier nest I can almost hear my heart pounding in my chest with adrenalin and anticipation. Catching that first glimpse of the bundle of white down in amongst the heather causes me to draw a gasp knowing that I am so close to young harriers. It is a real privilage to be able to see this site first hand, especially in England knowing how rare these birds are.
Five healthy chicks. © Jude Lane, RSPB. This image was obtained under a Natural England scientific licence and reproduced here with Natural England’s permission.
The visit lasts only a matter of seconds, just enough time to establish how many of the eggs have hatched. The chicks look so vulnerable lying there, piled up on one another to keep warm. The oldest ones stare up at me and try to make themselves look fierce by opening their mouths and straightening their necks. It amazes me to know that these tiny, immobile and featherless young will, in just over a month, be fledging the nest as fully feathered juveniles.
This nest is also fascinating as the female raising these chicks is well known to the staff and fieldworkers in Bowland. Wing and satellite tagged on the UU estate in 2007 as part of the Natural England Hen harrier recovery project, ‘73587’ has a great record of breeding success. In 2008 as a first year she fledged a brood of four on the UU estate and in 2010 fledged five just over the UU estate’s boundary. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that by the end of July she will have fledged these five as well, increasing her tally of offspring to 14!
73587 in flight. © Stephen Murphy, Natural England.