January, 2015

Skydancer

Skydancer
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.
  • Ghosts of the Moors

    This week we welcome guest blogger Findlay Wilde. A passionate young conservationist, Findlay has spent the past year campaigning for hen harriers. Here, he explains how he first got interested in the bird of prey and what he has been doing to help the species. 

    Hen harriers.  Aren’t they just magnificent?  Whenever I see one, I feel totally “raptorvated”.

     I can still remember the first time I ever saw a hen harrier. I was out on the North Wales moors. The rain splattered my face and the low cloud limited my views over the vast landscape.  Despite the rain, I resolved to walk even further until a grey ghost, elegant and effortless, glided past me within 10 metres of where I stood.

    I gazed at it for as long as I could, before it was a distant speck, gliding easily on the wind, appearing and reappearing through the sloping hills. I was simply captivated and inspired by such a spectacle of nature.  

    As a young conservationist, I understand that there are huge problems facing British wildlife. One of these problems is the illegal persecution of raptors, and especially of hen harriers. As more and more information was being shared by the likes of the RSPB, Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Birders Against Wildlife Crime about the declines in our breeding hen harrier population, I knew that this was my next project. I made it my goal to work hard to raise awareness and to try to reach the people who had never even heard of a hen harrier.  After experiencing such a wonderful bird out in the wild, it is horrible to think about how they are being purposely killed.

     I continued to learn all about hen harriers, the good and the bad.  People talked about how positive it was to have four breeding pairs in England in 2014 after having none in 2013. But our uplands should support more that 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers, so four pairs is just not acceptable.  

    People I meet at conferences, talks, reserves and events frequently ask why I think saving our English hen harriers is so important.  The answer is simple; hen harriers have every right to be dancing in our skies and we have to protect them. I can't understand how people can allow extinction to take place right on their doorstep and not do anything about it.

    In 2014, I began “Project Harry” to help the RSPB’s Skydancer project. Harry, a 6ft hen harrier, started off as a tiny thought in the back of my mind. He was built and bought to life for a local scarecrow competition in our village. Harry spent four weeks in our living room while his feathers were drying and he then he spent another four weeks on the roof of our house, number 52 in the scarecrow competition.  There was a poster put up below him, telling people all about the persecution of raptors. 

    Findlay with Harry the Hen Harrier

    I quickly realised that Harry was reaching people who hadn’t heard of a hen harrier before and who were shocked to hear about the near extinction of Harry’s English relatives. Harry won the competition and the prize money was given straight to Skydancer.  At this point though, I had no idea how amazing the journey I was going to have with Harry would be.

    On 10th August 2014, I took Harry to the first ever Hen Harrier Day, organised by Mark Avery, Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Chris Packham in the Peak District.  It was amazing to see 570 people out in driving rain, coming together to speak out against wildlife crime.  Since then, Harry has been to the Rutland Birdfair on the Wildlife Crime Prevention stand, raising even more public awareness. Visitors to the fair were asked to take selfies with Harry and post them on Twitter to keep hen harriers in everyone’s hearts.  

    Findlay with Chris Packham at Hen Harrier Day

    Harry has also been to BBC Autumnwatch, appearing on Autumnwatch Extra.  He was again a great focal point, and it was great for me to be able to talk about hen harriers, persecution and their declines.  Currently, Harry is located at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, where he is staying for the rest of the hen harrier winter roost.  He is on display for all visitors to see, and every week more Harry selfies appear on Twitter. 

    The RSPB do monthly Skydancers on the Dee events throughout winter to raise awareness about hen harriers.  On these days, I get up full of enthusiasm and head off to volunteer with the RSPB’s Dan Trotman and his team. During the afternoon we talk to passersby about hen harriers and, when possible, show the birds to them through the scopes.  I really enjoy conversations with all these different people and love watching their faces when they see a quartering raptor close up for the first time.  Sometimes though, I admit I get a bit distracted watching across the marsh myself.

    Hen harrier on the Dee

    In December, I used a picture of Harry with a snowy background and made Wishing You A Harry Christmas cards. 500 cards were sold in just two weeks and this raised another £525 for Skydancer. More importantly, it got the hen harrier story in to 500 homes over Christmas.

    Harry was just one small project, but he has made a very big impact. For a while, social media was filled with images of this 6ft imposing giant. I like to think that Harry has inspired people, and that some of them will do something positive to help protect our wildlife.  This started out as just a small project and look how it’s turned out. Imagine if we did a larger-scale project; imagine if we all worked on something huge together. I have an idea or two of course!

    I am not sure what will happen to Harry after his winter roost; I hope he can continue to raise awareness, but I am bursting with great new ideas for the future. I feel more and more confident that all of us; NGOs and other organisations can work together to change things. I for one can’t wait to be a part of the movement making a positive difference and filling the skies with dancers.

    Read Findlay’s regular blog at http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/

    Follow Findlay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/wildeaboutbirds

  • Happy New Year from Bowland

    With little movement from Burt and Highlander since my last update (still residing in North Cumbria and the South Pennines respectively), this blog is simply an excuse to share some photographs (all my own unless stated otherwise) and experiences with you of a place that is really special to me. I’m Lancashire born and bred and always knew Bowland as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers in England. It’s a misguided view that I’ve since revised, as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers should of course, be our uplands as a whole. So here’s my experiences of just one small corner of our uplands over a few months in the spring and summer a few years ago....

    When I started work for the RSPB in April 2005 little did I know that the fifteen pairs of hen harriers that nested in Bowland that year would soon be effectively wiped out. Shocking isn’t it, from fifteen pairs to extinction in less than ten years. My first contract was a joy, essentially I was being paid to go birding, well spend four months surveying and mapping the breeding birds on the United Utilities Bowland Estate to be exact. I’d think nothing of seeing half a dozen hen harriers in a day whilst surveying the moors and on one particularly memorable morning that April, I lay in the heather watching two stunning male harriers skydancing whilst three ringtails quartered the moors below.

    Spending four months combing 42 square kilometres of the estate gave me such an insight into how special these upland areas are for wildlife. No field guides, video clips, CDs of bird calls, photographs nor any other medium comes close to being in the thick of the action, and I learnt so, so much. As well as daily multiple hen harrier encounters, merlins and peregrines were frequently seen, I literally stumbled on my first ever short eared owl nest, the adult flying up from under my feet leaving three young owlets staring me out. They won. The nest subsequently went on to fledge three healthy shorties. It’s also the first time I experienced their spectacular wing clapping display flights.

    Short-eared owlets on the United Utilities Bowland Estate.

    Curlews were widespread and as well as frequent encounters with their sprinting chicks (they’re all leg for the first couple of weeks), provided for me what is the ultimate soundtrack to our uplands, that beautiful, eerie, plaintive, bubbling call that accompanies their parachuting song flight that just can’t be beaten. I challenge anyone to lay amongst the heather on a crisp spring morning taking in the stunning landscape whilst your ears are filled with that most atmospheric of sounds and not be moved by it. It simply lifts the soul.

    Curlew chick. Golden Plover in breeding plumage.

    I’d also share my ‘office’ with golden plovers on the high plateaus, resplendent in their black, white and gold spangled finery, a bird transformed from the altogether duller subdued golden browns of winter. The song of ring ouzels would echo around the valleys carrying far and wide and making it difficult to pinpoint the songster, usually perched in isolated rowans on the hillsides whilst whinchats, newly arrived from their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, flitted around areas of bracken setting up territories where the resident and closely related stonechats would allow. Incessant singing skylarks competed with the curlews for the audio crown and ‘tseep, tseep’ing meadow pipits were everywhere, scattering from tussocks on every transect I walked, occasionally a bird burst from underfoot in an awkward low, almost scrambling flight across the top of the vegetation with tail spread. I quickly learnt that this behaviour meant the bird had come off a nest and was attempting to get me to follow it – a distraction display to lead me away from the nest.

    Meadow Pipit nestlings

    With the meadow pipits providing food for harriers and merlins, the insect life that fed the pipits was there in abundance to the point that every footstep seemed to be onto moving ground, a tide of spiders scuttling out of the way as I placed my feet between tussocks of cotton grass, various mosses, bog asphodel and other-worldly carnivorous sundews. Green hairstreak butterflies, so small and inconspicuous amongst the bilberry and almost impossible to follow in flight were simply exquisite at close range when found motionless, still lethargic in the early morning mists before they warmed up enough to take flight. Golden-ringed dragonflies, our largest species, were an unexpected treat found hawking over some of the smaller rocky streams flowing down the moorland valleys. My steps became a little more tentative after the morning I met a hissing adder in one of the boggier valley bottoms. I could go on for hours and hours but you get the idea, the estate teems with wildlife and for much of the spring and summer I pretty much had it to myself. Wherever they were, the general public just didn’t know what they were missing.

    Bog Asphodel, Round-leaved Sundew, Green Hairstreak, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Adder.

    With the wider ecosystem services that such areas provide whether that be carbon storage, flood prevention, recreational walking, hiking, cycling or just taking in the spectacular sights and sounds, it just seems bizarre, selfish perhaps, that anyone would want to damage such places. Not all of our uplands are as diverse as this, especially where the management practises are geared towards intensive production of thousands of red grouse for driven shooting.

      

    The United Utilities Bowland Estate.......

    ....and an intensive driven grouse moor in Scotland

    In their own right, our uplands deserve the domestic and international protection they are afforded. Whether it is conserving hen harriers or restoring areas of degraded peat, the uplands remain a high priority for the RSPB and other organisations going in to 2015. It is essential that their protection and that of the internationally important habitats and species they support is maintained and effectively enforced. That way, the natural wonders I was privileged to spend the spring and summer of 2005 with, will be available to everybody, wherever they are, for generations to come.

    So for me, nearly ten years on from my first steps into Bowland’s magical moors, I saw 2014 as a turning point. Whether it was the return of successfully breeding hen harriers to England, the inspiration that was Hen Harrier Day, or Skydancer winning the National Lottery Best Education Project Award, the year’s many highlights have provided us with many positives to build on in 2015. I begin the year with real optimism, so happy new year Skydancer followers, enjoy the photos and let’s make 2015 even better!