Apologies for a lack of updates on our tagged harriers - for the past two weeks I’ve been away on a birding trip to Shetland. No Hen Harriers up there due to a natural absence of voles, one of their main food sources, but I was lucky enough to see a juvenile Pallid Harrier – a rare migrant and close relative that breeds mostly in Russia and central Asia and winters in sub-Saharan Africa - quite a migratory feat and one that sometimes results in these birds drifting way off course!
No such concerns for Burt who has continued to remain faithful to Bowland over the past two weeks. Until a few days ago that is.... Yes he’s finally discovered his adventurous side and has started to head south with his last fix from the mid-Cheshire sandstone ridge. Inland Cheshire is not ideal habitat for a harrier but areas of young conifer plantation and small areas of remnant heath where Burt has frequented will no doubt harbour rodent and meadow pipit food, far more than the surrounding grass silage dairying country that dominates the county. The estuarine northwest of Cheshire however is a great area for seeing wintering Hen Harriers, more on this in a future post...
If Burt continues south I expect the meres, mosses and moors of Shropshire and Staffordshire may well be to his liking, in fact a pair of hen harriers held territory in Shropshire in 1988 near the Welsh border. Such areas have historically held breeding harriers and should the national population recover, there is every likelihood hen harriers could breed again in suitable habitat in these counties.
Map of Burt and Highlander's recent travels.
Meanwhile, Highlander continues to wander the intensively managed grouse moors of the West Pennine Moors and Yorkshire Dales. After the worrying, unexplained disappearance of Sky and Hope, it’s good to know that Highlander is still out there holding her own in the uplands. We’ll be following her movements with interest....
Female Hen Harrier hunting over the RSPB's Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on the Dee Estuary. Copyright Steve Round rspb-images.com
If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.
This week we’ve got a guest blog from Laurence Rose, former RSPB Northern England Director and a composer, who talks about his hen harrier-inspired composition, Skydancer.
I first saw hen harriers skydancing in the late seventies. It was in the Forest of Bowland and the memory of the birds, and the place – which I came to know intimately in later years – is still vivid. I remember watching the effortless and buoyant flight of a male harrier and noting how it seemed to trace a gently undulating line that matched the shape of Tarnbrook Fell.
Then a sudden burst of energy and a rocketing flight as a female appeared from nowhere. Both birds rose to describe a sharper curve, she twisted, he swerved and a speck of prey flew between them. Then, a serene separation as sudden as the dance itself.
On another occasion, I was walking Clougha Fell, across the valley. It was June and the air was still and warm and peat-scented. My path took me past a gritstone outcrop where I was greeted by a sudden wind that threw ice crystals in my face before subsiding back to nothing.
For years I was fascinated by these lines and rhythms. The shapes of the fells against the sky, how they change with the light. And the patterns of energy as the wind plays around the rocks or the birds play along the wind. As a composer, I never stop thinking about line and rhythm. Seeing it in a landscape is half way to writing it in a score: just add notes!
Last weekend the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra (LCCO) premiered my Skydancer, a short piece that is a direct response to the grandeur and the minutiae of the fells and their inhabitants. For me, the most important rhythms in music are the big ones, the ones that define the structure of a piece and the flow of energy across its span: the landscape. Rhythm at a smaller scale, like the movements of birds or the sounds of the weather, characterise the moment.
The LCCO had asked for a piece “playable by a good amateur orchestra.” I knew Skydancer would be borderline. I needed it to progress in gradually-shifting, hazy harmonies; no block chords to signpost the route. Bursts of energy had to be in the form of complex cross-rhythms, as they always are in nature. Difficult stuff, but “good amateur orchestra” turned out to be an understatement: it was an impressive performance.
I just don’t write music that is about something, or so I always tell people. The decision to give this piece a title that even hints at what composers pompously call an “extra-musical idea” wasn’t easy. My music is supposed to be what it is and no more – notes on a page, or in the air if someone actually plays it: abstract music, like in the old days. But I heard that the RSPB Skydancer project had been nominated for (and has now won) this year’s national Lottery Award for Best Education Project. At the same time, momentum behind the inaugural Hen Harrier Day was picking up, while news of yet more atrocities against this wonderful species continued to filter through.
Having written a piece that owes so much to my early experiences of fell-walking in what remains of England’s hen harrier country, I couldn’t really not call it Skydancer.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that we have been trying to find out what happened to Sky and Hope, two young hen harriers that fledged from nests in Bowland this year.
We were tracking the movements of these birds by satellite but their tags suddenly stopped transmitting last month, within days of each other. No bodies have been recovered.
Satellite technology is normally extremely reliable so it is most likely that Sky and Hope were either victims of natural predation or illegal persecution.
Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit were notified about the disappearance of these birds. However, without any sufficient evidence to work with, they are currently unable to progress any investigation.
If you spend time in the Bowland area you might be able to help. Has anyone been talking about the fate of the birds locally? Gamekeepers, in particular, spend more time on the moors than anyone else and could have come across something. If you’re a member of this community, do you know anything about the fate of the harriers that you’d be willing to share in complete confidence?
We are offering a £1,000 reward for any information that leads to a conviction, should it emerge that one or both birds were illegally killed.
Here are the facts:
Sky’s last transmission was at 7.33pm on Wednesday 10 September around Summersgill Fell, west of Thrushgill, in the Forest of Bowland.
Hope’s last transmission was at 10.51am on the Saturday 13 September around Mallowdale Pike, also in the Forest of Bowland.
The last transmissions from Hope (L) and Sky (R) were somewhere within these circles
If you have any information about either birds, please contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0845 466 3636.