So with the breeding season drawing to a close, I am very pleased to announce that we have now seen all 12 fledgling harriers on the wing. It took a little bit of patience on Mick’s part but he eventually managed to catch the single female chick in the air. For the best part of 7 hours he watched the nest area, seeing the female but nothing of the juvenile. Hour after hour ticked by but no sign. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you’ll know it becomes harder and harder to leave because you know that as soon as you turn your back something will happen and you’ll be none the wiser! Luckily for Mick though, just as he was thinking about leaving, right at the end of the day, up she came from the heather, some distance from the nest and made a short flight – phew!
With just 12 harriers fledging on the UU’s Bowland estate in 2011 it was a disappointing year in comparison with many of the previous years, however the estate continues to maintain its importance for breeding harriers in England.
Despite the personal pleasure I get from watching these birds, my feelings are always hampered by sadness that the harrier really is hanging on by a thread as a breeding bird in England. There is no question, the number of hen harrier nesting attempts in England this year continues to fall way below the potential population levels. The JNCC report “A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the UK”, published back in February, estimates that the English uplands have the potential to support in excess of 320 pairs.
Why are they doing so badly? The JNCC report states that in order for a hen harrier population to expand, the productivity per nesting attempt needs to be at least 1.2, in other words there need to be an average of 1.2 young fledging for every nesting attempt made. The productivity on the UU estate in Bowland this year was higher than this; in fact it was well above at 1.7. However, productivity alone is not sufficient. They also need to be able to expand their territories and occupy new areas and this simply isn’t being allowed to happen. That there were only two nesting attempts outside UU’s Bowland estate this year speaks plainly for itself, and previous years have been no different; illegal persecution of these birds on upland grouse moors is still happening and tragically it is near impossible to prevent it.
The fact that this species is successfully breeding in England at all is a tribute to the work of United Utilities and their tenants (farming and shooting), Natural England, dedicated volunteer raptor fieldworkers, the police and the RSPB. Finding a solution to the hen harrier/grouse moor conflict is a difficult task but it is something the RSPB is absolutely committed to and we will continue to work with government, landowners and partners until a sustainable solution has been achieved.
Just when I was beginning to feel like the season was winding down, Friday afternoon I got an excited phone call from a couple of our volunteers “We’re just watching a pair of black grouse!” How exciting! Black grouse are an extremely rare sight in Bowland these days. They haven’t bred here since the early 1990's’s although there have been a few infrequent sightings since. Could they be back? Could this be the start of Black grouse recovery in Bowland?
So yesterday I headed up to where they had been seen to have a look for myself. It’s very true, us Brits are never happy with the weather! Bright, hot, sunshine shone down, straight into my face making the fields of wavy hair grass and heat haze blend into one shimmery blur! Two heads appeared above the grass “wow, could this be them?” I sat and strained my eyes with bins and scope trying to get a good clear view but it was impossible, it was just too bright. Bobbing in and out of sight they wandered around in the grass, so I sneaked a little closer and stood behind a wall. One of them completely disappeared but the other was really clear then, a red hen – how disappointing. Never mind though, we’ll keep looking and let you know!
And how have the harriers been getting on? Well, since I last blogged 11 out of the 12 young birds are now on the wing. Stephen Murphy (NE) and Mick Procter (assistant warden) went up last week to ring the five young belonging to 73587 (pictured in blog “And then there were 12!) and they all flew off! However, they managed to catch and ring what must have been the youngest female but with the others they had no chance. These youngsters seem to have left the nest very quickly, but it seems that many of the birds have been fledging early this year, probably as a result of the abundance of food available.
I’m just about to head up and watch the nest with the last chick to fledge. This nest contains just a single female chick, which on Saturday didn’t seem to keen to fly, despite her mother’s best efforts. Mick watched her circling above the nest with food, calling for 5 minutes trying to encourage the youngster into the air but to no avail. Eventually she landed and the young bird could be seen clambering through the heather to reach the food! She is older than the eldest of 73587’s young by about 4 days, so you can see the difference it makes being the only chick in the nest – the lack of competition means she has little incentive to fly as she knows she is always going to get fed! Hopefully she’ll have worked it out over the weekend – I’ll let you know in the next blog.