As autumn sets in and the evenings draw shorter, millions of birds around the coutry are on the move. For most people, the word "migration" conjures up images of Africa-bound swallows making their perilous, long-distance journey over seas and cross-contients. However, migration isn't the sole preserve of the international travellers - it can also mean birds that simply occupy different habitats with the changing seasons.
If you've ever been out walking the moors in the winter, you'll know how harsh conditions up there can become. As the ice and snow set in, smaller birds take refuge down-slope and mice and voles become unreachable under drifts several feet deep. It's not surprising then that most hen harriers abandon their traditional moorland breeding grounds and head for the lowlands, particularly marshes and reedbeds in milder, coastal areas.
Male hen harrier, Dee Estuary 2013 (c) Mike Davenport
We still have very little insight into exactly which birds go where but we do know that in general, females tend to stay closer to their breeding grounds, while males are likely to wander more widely. Occasionally, the odd harrier even decides he's had enough of the UK altogether and pops across to France or Spain, but that's definitely the exception rather than the rule. All this movement means that while we may not have had any successful breeding pairs in England this year, an influx of Scottish and Welsh birds makes this the perfect time of year to see hen harriers in England. If you've never seen a hen harrier before, now's your chance!
Like several other birds of prey, hen harriers have traditional winter roost sites dotted around the country where they like to bed down of an evening and we're lucky enough to host a number of these sites on RSPB reserves. In the Northwest, we'll be running “Skydancers on the Dee”, a series of events over the next six months offering nature lovers the opportunity to experience these amazing birds at our Parkgate reserve on the Dee Estuary.
The first event is on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 October, from 12pm until dusk, at the “Donkey Stand” on The Parade in Parkgate and will be repeated every two weeks until the spring. RSPB staff will be on hand with telescopes and binoculars to show you where to look and there'll be plenty of activities for children to get involved in too. All events are free and you can pop along any time until dusk. For the full list of event dates visit www.rspb.org.uk/deeestuary.
Over in the East, our Blacktoft Sands reserve is the place to go with several "Bedtime at Blacktoft" events scheduled over the coming months - the perfect opportunity to see hen harriers and plenty of other wildlife too. For more information visit www.rspb.org.uk/blacktoftsands.
So what are you waiting for? Come dust off your winter coat, stroll along the promenade with a hot chocolate, and see one of the UK's most elusive birds of prey for yourself!
Guest blog from Gavin Thomas, Bowland Wader Project Officer.
....and for once I can use the word summer without wondering if it is perhaps not the most accurate word to describe the season! After a slow start, this season has largely been kind to Bowland’s nationally important breeding wading bird population. A cold, dry late February and March when Lapwings were returning to Bowland was not ideal for them as invertebrate food sources were scarce. To successfully raise a brood, the female needs to be in prime condition and know that there will be enough food for her chicks. So it was no surprise that many farmers working with the Wader Project reported Lapwings early on that failed to settle and breed and departed in April without making a nesting attempt.
On the flip side, the dry early spring meant that many farmers were able to get out onto their fields to chain harrow and roll their fields before Lapwings were laying eggs. Because Bowland is such a wet part of the country, these practices are often not usually possible until later in the spring when the ground dries up and allows tractor passage. Chain harrowing and rolling in April and May is clearly bad news for ground nesting waders so many nests and young chicks can be lost.
So with better nest and young chick survival early in the season, the weather did the birds another favour by being largely dry and sunny in early May and June when most wader chicks were hatching out. Wading bird chicks cannot regulate their body temperature in their first couple of weeks so the female needs to brood them in periods of cold or prolonged wet weather. With little need for brooding this spring, chicks were free to spend maximum time feeding and developed well with fledging success so far looking good. Invertebrates have thrived in the good weather and this is good news for the waders that feed on them. I spent a good half hour watching a brood of Curlew chicks one morning wandering through a meadow picking insects and spiders from the grasses at will. Just one of many broods of Curlew chicks I’ve come across this year. In fact I think I’ve seen more broods of Curlew and Redshank chicks this spring than the last three springs put together! A quick look through the wader survey sheets I’ve received back from our army of volunteers shows similarly good signs with most reporting waders with chicks on their surveys.
Curlew and chick near Whitewell in June. Gavin Thomas, RSPB
And then we come to July – heatwave! After several years of appalling mid summer weather, (I watched the River Hodder flowing down the road in Dunsop Bridge one day last summer), July has been stunning! The long dry spell has allowed farmers to harvest some much needed hay and silage but has also allowed areas of rush that have not been mown for several years to be tackled. Mown rush pastures provide Lapwings with more open areas to nest the following spring. Too much rush in pastures pushes Lapwings onto meadows, where if managed intensively and cut too early, are risky places to nest.
Redshank chick making the most of an abundant crop of insects in a beautiful meadow on Deep Clough Farm in Littledale. Gavin Thomas, RSPB
So as ever, the weather is king and dictates how our wildlife fares, balancing good years for some with bad years for others. For example, although waders have done well, Bowland’s Barn Owl population has taken a bit of a knock this year due to the cold spring and a low ebb in their rodent food sources. And as for predators, yes they take their toll on waders as they have always done and always will. I’m often told that predator control is the answer to wader conservation but you can do all the predator control you want on a field that is drained, chain harrowed, rolled, plastered with slurry and artificial fertiliser and mown in early May - waders will not survive such management! Providing areas of suitably managed habitat remains critical so securing more traditionally managed late cut meadows and unimproved rushy pastures remains our key priority.