December, 2014


Get the latest news on our hen harrier conservation work, including the five-year Hen Harrier Life+ project.

Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers

Follow the efforts of RSPB staff during the breeding season, as they attempt to monitor and protect one of England's rarest breeding birds of prey - the hen harrier.
  • Special birds in special places

    Well, after barely any movement from Highlander in recent weeks, she’s ‘done a Burt’ and gone exploring. On 4th December she headed about eight kilometres north of her usual haunt and roosted on the Pennine fringe east of Colne. Rather than continuing north the following morning she headed west towards the coast and took in the area around the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere on the Lancashire plain. I contacted a couple of the staff there to see if there had been any harrier sightings over that weekend but it seems nobody managed to connect with her. She was still in the area early afternoon of 7th December but she was heading back east and had arrived back in her usual South Pennines haunt by 14:58 – a distance of over 50 kilometres covered in under two hours.

    Highlander's movements in December

    So despite Highlander giving everyone the slip at Martin Mere, Burt has given himself up again in recent weeks. After his trip to Dumfries and Galloway, he was spotted by none other than Norman Holton, our RSPB Senior Sites Manager for Cumbria at our Campfield Marsh reserve on the Solway. On the morning of the 2nd December, Norm was doing some work in the eastern part of the reserve and was treated to a sighting of a ringtail harrier hunting close by. He was sharp eyed enough to notice that it was satellite tagged and contacted the Skydancer team to find out where the bird had originated from. At the time Norm saw him, Burt was on his way back south, to an area of north Cumbria where he spent a week or so in late November. He’s remained there, not too far from Bassenthwaite since.

    Burt's movements in December

    So that’s the latest update on Burt and Highlander’s travels and as 2014 comes to an end, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at where these tagged harriers have been spending much of their time since they fledged from their Bowland Fells nests over five months ago. Sadly Sky and Hope were not able to explore any further than their natal areas due to their untimely disappearances back in September, but their siblings, Highlander and Burt, have been able to spread their wings as their confidence and wandering instincts have developed. Between them they’ve graced six counties in two countries, exploring the upland landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway, the Yorkshire Dales, South Pennines and the Cumbrian Fells. When they’ve spent time away from the uplands, the Solway, the Ribble Estuary and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere have all been visited by these two very special raptors.

    In case you hadn’t already noticed, all the areas I listed above have something in common. They are all landscapes or sites which have been afforded special protection from statutory designations. From the Bowland Fells Special Protection Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest where they were born, to the Special Area of Conservation of the Solway and Ramsar site of Martin Mere, these are all areas which are nationally or internationally recognised for their important habitats and species.

    The Bowland Fells Special Protection Area (SPA) - a special place so designated for its breeding hen harriers - Gavin Thomas RSPB

    Despite few of these being specifically designated for hen harriers it just underlines how important these protected areas as a whole are for our rarest wildlife. Their attractiveness was clearly demonstrated by Highlander for example when she wandered away from the South Pennines – she’d headed straight to Martin Mere, a wetland oasis within the agriculturally improved landscape of the west Lancashire Plain. Similarly when Burt left Bowland, he headed straight to the multi-designated landscape that is the Ribble Estuary before heading north to the Cumbrian Fells, the Solway and southern Scotland.

    We’re all too aware of the direct threats to our hen harriers but what about the indirect ones? At a time when it seems that nature as a whole is being given a pretty poor deal, it’s concerning that the very legislation that underpins the protection of these special places, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, are now under review. Whether it’s protected sites, specific conservation measures for species or wider countryside initiatives such as the agri-environment schemes that are supporting farmers’ efforts in managing areas of their farms for wildlife; it is all potentially under threat from a review of the legislation. You can read more about this here on our conservation director's blog. 

    So if you care about nature and special places then it’s well worth keeping an eye on this review and making sure you have your say, especially at a time when the UK Government seems to be giving nature short shrift. Nature, including hen harriers and the habitats they depend on, needs a voice, therefore it is up to us all to ensure that protecting nature is firmly on the agenda of the decision makers. To help this happen click here.

    In the meantime should you be enjoying a festive foray into the countryside and are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please report it to the hen harrier hotline at 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.

  • Burt's on the move.

    Autumn and early winter is a great time to look for hen harriers in England. With so few nesting attempts in the country and so few birds out there in summer despite the hundreds of square miles of suitable habitat, the autumn sees numbers swell as harriers begin to disperse from elsewhere. As well as birds from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, harriers are also arriving from abroad. The east coast of England is a particularly good area to encounter them and there have been multiple sightings in recent weeks. It’s possible some of these birds have originated from the near continent, Sweden and Finland for example but without recovering a ringed bird or seeing a bird fitted with wing tags it’s impossible to know for sure.

    This is where satellite tagging is so useful in learning more about the detailed movements of these birds. With a Scottish tagged bird already making it to northern France, we’ve been hoping our tagged Bowland birds might give the Scottish bird a run for her money. Highlander however has a long way to go to even come close as she seems to have taken on Burt’s sedentary nature and remains faithful to the Pennine moors between Burnley and Bradford. Burt however is now proving quite mobile and has already taken in a new country, Scotland to be precise.

    Since my last update, when one of our volunteers managed to ‘twitch’ Burt leaving a roost site in Bowland after his satellite tag gave us some fantastic location data, Burt has been on the move. On 18 November, another great series of fixes placed him on the north Ribble marshes where he roosted overnight. These marshes are a fantastic place for wildlife and it’s likely Burt would have found a plentiful food source here in the rough grassland and saltmarsh, an area where many finches, buntings, pipits and larks overwinter and doubtless plenty of small rodents are present. In fact Burt wasn’t the only hen harrier in the area at the time, as on the opposite side of the estuary, a stunning adult male bird was delighting visitors to our Marshside reserve. It seems Burt escaped their attentions though!

    Ringtail hen harrier hunting passerines over saltmarsh - thanks to Andy Davis for the cracking pic!

    Despite the estuary’s appeal, Burt didn’t linger and headed up to northern Cumbria where he spent a week on the northern fringe of the Lake District between Carlisle and Bassenthwaite. His next foray was even further north across the border into southern Scotland where he found an area of grass-dominated moorland and conifer plantations west of the M74 near Moffat to his liking. It would be interesting to know whether he encountered any other harriers in this part of the world as he wasn’t too far away from Langholm Moor where a far more natural population of hen harriers successfully nested this year – no fewer than 47 young fledged from 12 nests to be exact! You can find out here exactly why hen harriers are doing so well on this particular moor.

    Burt’s movements over the past few weeks

    So as November gave way to December, Burt remained north of the border. Any guesses where he’ll go next? Will he continue north and follow the remarkable track taken by the sadly late Bowland Betty, or will cooler weather halt his travels further north? Will he head south and if so how far? He’s got some way to go if he wants to match the travels of this remarkable hen harrier for starters. I’ll keep you informed....

    If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at 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.