I was only a kid, ten or eleven I think, but I can still picture it now – my first ever hen harrier. My mum used to take me there on Sunday afternoons hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird I’d dreamt about seeing in real life after drooling over the plates of it in my Mitchell Beazley bird book, a present given to me by my mum and dad for my eighth birthday. I still own and treasure that book.
Hen Harrier plate in my treasured Mitchell Beazley book. It was a red-letter day putting that tick next to it!
Less than an hour from my inner city Liverpool home I’d stand there gazing out over what seemed like another world - the Welsh mountains providing the backdrop to a seemingly vast, wild place that was devoid of people and teeming with birds. After several failed attempts, that first sighting was just so, so special. Those slim wings and long tail just weren’t right for a buzzard, it wasn’t flying right and the tail had striking thick dark bars. Then a sharp twist in the air as it flushed a skylark out the marsh and there it was, the characteristic flash of a white rump. I’d seen my first hen harrier. I was simply elated as I watched the bird for several minutes as it hunted effortlessly over the saltmarsh in the mid-winter, late afternoon gloom. That bird over that habitat underlined to me even then what a fantastic place it was. I was at the RSPB’s Dee Estuary reserve in Cheshire.
So here’s a guest blog from a lucky lad called Dan Trotman, who’s the Visitor Development Officer on that very reserve where I first caught the hen harrier bug:
‘One memory that has stuck with me from my early days at the Dee Estuary reserve is my maiden voyage to Parkgate with my manager in September 2010. We were hoping that I’d see my first ever hen harrier. At the time, I didn’t quite appreciate how significant it would have been had we caught sight of the lone ringtail, the only one that had so far returned to the marshes after the breeding season that summer.
Four years on, I need no reminding how lucky I am to have the opportunity to see them regularly on the Dee every winter. It’s likely that the birds we see here are from the nearby Welsh breeding population, as well as further afield, but this is no compensation for their shocking demise in the uplands of England where they should be present in their hundreds.
The vast saltmarsh off Parkgate promenade is well-known as a winter roost site for hen harriers. Since the late 1980s, the Dee Estuary RSPB team have delivered regular events to showcase these spectacular raptors and the other birds of prey such as peregrines and merlins that grace the reserve in the winter months.
The opening of the new Burton Mere Wetlands visitor facilities in 2011 was intended to make the wildlife spectacle of the wider estuary more accessible to the public, and one of the species that has delighted visitors most in the winter months is the hen harrier.
Over the coming months we are running Skydancers on the Dee, a series of events aimed inspiring people about these amazing birds and highlighting their plight. Most people have never seen a hen harrier but we can change that here! So far this autumn, a total of three hen harriers have been on the Dee; one grey adult male, who has moved on after a brief stay in October, and two ringtails that are still present and thrilling visitors to our Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on a daily basis. This winter has so far been very mild so hopefully, more harriers will arrive, should the winter weather harden.
True to the unpredictable nature of wildlife, rather than using their traditional roost on the saltmarsh off Parkgate, one of the ringtails appears to have been roosting at our Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on a few occasions. One of the two juvenile marsh harriers that are currently also on the reserve is doing likewise – in fact it’s a novelty for us to have marsh harriers so late in the year and to see both species in the air together. The harriers have also roosted on Burton Marsh some nights so it seems that you have to be in the right place at the right time this winter!
Our team is keeping close tabs on these birds so whether they are at Parkgate, Burton Marsh or Burton Mere Wetlands we’ll be doing our best to ensure visitors to the Dee are rewarded with a sighting.
So why not join us this Sunday, 30 November, between noon and dusk to learn more about these birds and the Skydancer project. There are harriers around so you’ve every chance of seeing one of these fantastic birds hunting over the marsh and hopefully dropping into roost around sunset.
If you can’t make it this Sunday, there are further events on the Dee each month until March. For full details, click here.
Thanks to a satellite tag and an eagle-eyed photographer, a young hen harrier from southwest Scotland has recently been tracked to our Wallasea Wetlands reserve in southern England. However, that wasn't far enough apparently, as the intrepid traveler has now migrated all the way to France!
Read more about this fascinating journey on our Rainham Marshes blog here.
Photo of sat-tagged hen harrier, Wallasea Wetlands, 2014 (c) Tony Orwell
With little new to report on the movements of our harriers in recent weeks it was exciting to hear of a tagged harrier from Scotland being sighted in Essex last week, on one of our fantastic nature reserves at Wallasea Island nonetheless! No such great journeys to report on locally, bar Burt’s short trip into Cheshire last month. Highlander, one of the young female harriers from the first Bowland nest this summer, continues to reside in the West Pennine Moors, whilst Burt, the young male fledged from the second Bowland nest, has returned to form wandering widely around the AONB. Whilst doing so, his satellite tag has been providing some excellent data allowing us to pinpoint the various locations he has chosen to feed and roost.
Burt and Highlander's movements over the past three weeks
As well as having our eyes peeled on the data coming in from satellite tagged hen harriers, there are also sightings of harriers coming in from a passionate bunch of folk out there looking for harriers on the fells and in the wider countryside. After several fixes in close proximity late one evening revealing Burt’s exact roosting location, one of these harrier watchers was given a tip off and was in position before dawn the next day. Jean Roberts takes up the story....
After a tip-off from Gavin regarding the whereabouts of Burt, I got up well before first light the next morning to see if I could get a sighting of the young hen harrier leaving his roost site. Normally it is very difficult for me to get up so early and in the dark but that morning it was no problem at all - I was full of hope and excitement! This gave way to apprehension after 20 minutes on site staring at nothing, but suddenly, five minutes before sunrise, up popped Burt from his roost, materialising magically above the fell. I could hardly believe it. It was fantastic to see him still alive and well, especially after the disappearance of Sky and Hope, two of the other satellite-tagged youngsters I’d been hoping to follow through their first few months of life.
The sudden “jumping up” of harriers from a roost has been documented by Donald Watson in his excellent book “The Hen Harrier” but it was still a surprise to see it. As I watched, Burt started to quarter the hillside for breakfast but a resident crow spotted him and gave chase. Burt effortlessly dodged the crow with some sideways manoeuvres and, with a flash of his white rump, he flew down the hillside out of view. Some minutes later he mysteriously reappeared, having sneaked up the hillside without either me or the nearby crow noticing. With typical buoyant flight and wings held in a shallow V Burt flew agilely down into a dip and disappeared again. I waited a while but didn’t see him again after that.
This is both the joy and frustration of harrier watching as I have found out over the years. Harriers appear so suddenly giving you a jolt but, in the time it takes to scrabble for binoculars to get a better view, they disappear again and you’re wishing you’d noticed the plumage details better or whether they had a sat tag or wishing you hadn’t bothered to get your binoculars at all! But the all too brief sightings of Burt had made my day and I returned home in a very happy frame of mind for a celebratory breakfast.
It is experiences such as this that spur me on to get more involved in supporting the monitoring and conservation work being undertaken for hen harriers and other birds in my local area. It is good to know that, along with that of others, my information, positive or negative, helps to build a picture of where our harriers are, how many there are, where they are roosting and foraging and dare I say, where they are under threat from illegal persecution.
Male Hen Harrier heading in to its winter roost site - always guaranteed to get the pulse racing and brighten a dull winter's afternoon! Copyright John Whitting.
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.
Gavin Thomas and Jean Roberts
11 November 2014