Just over a week ago, I shared with you the incredible story of Chance, a young female hen harrier who surprised us all with her continental winter migrations. Today however, I have another story to share – another female hen harrier, fledged in 2014, the same year as Chance, this time from the Forest of Bowland, where the RSPB have been working in partnership with the water company, United Utilities, local raptor workers and others to protect and monitor hen harriers since the 1980s. Satellite-tagged and “adopted” by children from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School alongside her sister, Sky, the name Highlander is one that long-time readers of this blog might recognise. However in April this year, while Chance was in France readying herself to cross the Channel again, Highlander’s satellite tag suddenly stopped transmitting and she joined her sister in the ranks of the "disappeared".
Those closest to Highlander’s journey over the last two years have endured both incredible highs and crushing lows in the process, and it feels only right that you should hear her story from them.
Steve Downing is a long-time member of the voluntary Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and has been working with hen harriers for over a decade.
I started working with hen harriers in 2004 so 2014 was my 10th anniversary monitoring and protecting hen harriers, England most persecuted bird of prey. Fellow raptor workers often say that they wish that they had hen harriers in their study area and I always caution ‘be careful for what you wish for’. The emotional rollercoaster associated with monitoring this species is intense and the rewards are few and very far between. Harrier nest protection can be soul destroying with the watchers sitting about a kilometre away from the nest, in all weathers, recording adult activity in minute detail. The effort from all of the volunteers, day shift and night crew is truly monumental.
Following two years without a single nest in Bowland, Spring 2014 got off to a good start with a phone call to say that birds were back on territory; great but would they breed? Several days later a text arrived from Mick, RSPB Assistant Warden and Bowland Raptor Study Group member. A female was down incubating eggs and we arranged to meet on the United Utilities estate a few days later.
Being one of only a handful of people licensed to do so in England, it is both a tremendous privilege to fit BTO leg rings on the young of this iconic species and a great responsibility. At 11 am on the 23 June Mick and I visited the nest under licence. It contained five healthy looking chicks and after sharing a smile we set to work, preparing the way for Stephen Murphy, Natural England Hen Harrier Project Officer, to fit the satellite tags to two of the chicks.
Sisters Sky (left) and Highlander (right) having their satellite tags fitted, July 2014. (Image: Mick Demain)
By the time the satellite tags were fitted the chicks were almost ready to fly free and local school children had given the tagged birds names. They had named a female from nest one Sky and her sister was named Highlander. What a fantastic names for birds whose home was 380m high in the Forest of Bowland. Two more satellite-tagged birds from the only other nest in Bowland that year were given the equally inspirational names of Hope and Burt.
By late summer all of the Bowland chicks were flying free and hunting for their own food. It was good news that they had got so far. Unfortunately on the 10 September 2014 the satellite tag fitted to Sky, Highlander’s sister, inexplicably stopped working. The emotional rollercoaster had taken a dive but things got worse when Hope, from the neighbouring nest suffered the same fate on the same moor just three days later. I had held those birds, weighed them, measured them and ringed them a few weeks earlier and now they had joined the "disappeared". The other two sat-tagged birds, Burt and Highlander, were still alive but how many of the untagged birds were also dead?
The full story of Sky and Hope can be found here and here. Despite an extensive search and appeals for information, they were never found. As autumn turned to winter, the signal from Burt's satellite tag became gradually less frequent, indicating a likely problem with the battery. His last confirmed transmission was received on 26th December from a location in Exmoor National Park where he was wintering. Sadly, he hasn't been seen since.
James Bray started as RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer in February 2015. Working in partnership with United Utilities, monitoring and protecting hen harriers on their estate in the Forest of Bowland is a key part of James’ role.
Following her first winter, Highlander was first seen back in Bowland in late March on the slopes where she was born. With four pairs having settled down and with Highlander having found a mate, the team were incredibly excited.
Highlander was paired with a bird that was in its third year. It was a grey bird that still retained some brown feathers on its back, so we were able to identify it from the other males present on the estate. The pair settled in a small valley and began making a nest, bringing dead heather stems in to make a flimsy platform on the ground amidst a stand of deep heather. Soon after she had begun incubating her eggs disaster struck – her mate suddenly disappeared.
He was the first of four male hen harriers that had females incubating eggs on the United Utilities estate to disappear. The female hen harrier does all the egg incubation and relies on the male to feed her. If he disappears she must leave the nest to hunt and the eggs will chill and die.
Showing great determination to breed, Highlander stayed in her chosen valley and within a few days of her first mate disappearing she had managed to attract the attentions of another younger male. Highlander was soon back in her original nest and following a licensed nest visit, fieldworkers found that she had laid nine eggs. This was incredible as historically, only a tiny number of harriers have ever laid nine eggs in one nest. Not all the eggs would have hatched but this demonstrated how strong Highlander was.
Highlander's second nesting attempt with an incredible 9 eggs. (Image: James Bray, 2015)
As the days of her second attempt passed it became clear that her mate was struggling to provide for her. Hen harriers can be polygamous, and this male was already paired with another female who was on eggs. The strain proved too much and Highlander, being the secondary female, was deserted and she had to leave her eggs to feed herself. Her second nesting attempt had failed.
Obviously fed up of Bowland, Highlander headed off to southern Scotland and following two failed breeding attempts, we really thought that that would be the end of her first breeding season. A week later I received a very excited call from my colleague Mick who was monitoring a lone male harrier; he had attracted a female! This young male, in his first breeding season, had been skydancing on his own for over a week, and Mick told me that he had not seen a male displaying so vigorously before.
The first day that the female was in his valley he brought her six items of food over the course of the day but she completely ignored his advances. Over the next couple of day the two birds began to bond and were soon showing signs of nesting. We were obviously ecstatic that he had attracted a potential mate, and even more so when we saw that the female was carrying a satellite tag, and that its transmission confirmed that it was Highlander. The birds settled down, Highlander laid her third clutch of the season, and we all held our breaths.
Monitoring nesting hen harriers is often a game of hope and patience. Hope that ground predators do not find the nest, hope that bad weather does not have an effect on food supplies, and hope that the male returns after each hunting expedition. Patience is also required as it takes nearly a month for the eggs to hatch. And so as that month passed with no problems for the birds and with the male regularly bringing in food we began to count down the days. 6 July was the special day, as this was the day that food was first seen being carried into the nest, a sure sign that Highlander’s first chicks had hatched. That next week was very special as the male was proving to be a very good provider of food and many of our volunteers and staff took turns watching the valley and looking out for food passes as the male returned.
Five days later, on the day that the last egg would have hatched, disaster struck. Highlander and her mate were seen flying low over the nest diving at something on the ground. Mick and a colleague checked the nest to find that it had been cleaned out, most probably by a small ground predator such as a stoat or weasel. Heartbreakingly despite all her efforts, Highlander’s first breeding season had ended in failure, thwarted by her first male “disappearing”, then by a lack of food, and finally by nest predation.
Highlander's third nesting attempt ended in predation. (Image: James Bray, 2015)
Highlander spent the autumn and winter of 2015 and early 2016 within 30 miles of Bowland. As spring approached she returned to Bowland for brief visits but the vole population is at a very low level unfortunately, and harriers that have visited have not stayed long. Highlander was no different. I was with three visitors to Bowland when she paid her last visit to the valley in which she was born. We watched a female harrier quartering the hillside, and as she came closer I saw the satellite tag – Highlander was here. We hoped that she’d stay but that was the last time that she was seen in Bowland.
Sister to a missing sibling, partner to a missing mate, and three nest failures in the space of two months, our Highlander endured through it all. However, on 16 April 2016, Highlander’s satellite tag suddenly and unaccountably ceased transmission. The last signal received placed her in County Durham but it's possible she may have moved on from the area before going offline. We don’t know what caused the satellite tag to fail but transmission up to that point had been strong and there was no indication of battery failure. She has not been found.
A final word from Steve...
2014 was my 10th anniversary working with hen harriers and was supposed to be celebration of success. It was not. In 2014 I ringed nine birds in Bowland. Four were sat-tagged and all stopped transmitting, long before the sat tags reached their anticipated ‘end of life’. Male hen harriers are often called ‘ghosts of the hills’ because of the colour of their plumage and the way the fly. It is supposed to be a compliment but in reality it is not; they are ghosts. It makes me very sad, it should make every reasonable person sad.
A final word from James...
All the staff and volunteers here feel great anger that Sky, Hope, Burt, and Highlander are no longer quartering the English uplands, anger that there is only a tiny handful of hen harriers nesting in England in 2016, and anger at the persecution on some grouse shooting estates which results in there being no skydancing harriers over our hills.
We must turn that anger into a determination to stop persecution of birds of prey. We can find hope in the knowledge that the RSPB is doing all it can to protect hen harriers and that a rapidly growing coalition of groups and individuals are fighting to change the way that the uplands are being managed and to stop the persecution of birds of prey.
And we must hold on to the hope that hen harriers, as they have proved before, are more than capable of returning to the English uplands – our job is to ensure that the habitat conditions are right for them and that persecution is stopped.
Find out more about our work to monitor and protect hen harriers through Hen Harrier LIFE Project, and follow the fortunes of our satellite tagged birds by visiting our website rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or following us on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer.
Good and thanks for the clarification. I thought he meant the coalition groups of the Hen Harrier Actionless Planless-plan.
On the ground the RSPB is fantastic at wildlife crime reporting and in the European Courts fighting the government on muirburn and habitat destruction on grouse moors but as far as the Hen Harrier Day the RSPB has previously been quite luke-warm and distinctly frozen against the rapidly growing movement to ban driven grouse moors and end raptor crime on the uplands for ever.
The RSPB is hardly leading the way for these 'rapidly growing coalition of groups' but belatedly riding on the coat-tails of HH day. The RSPB needs to be leading the way rather than being part of the problem in supporting the legalization of the crime of brood movement and contrary to international guidelines supporting the re-introduction of Hen Harriers in the lowlands before the source of the killings has been removed.
Prasad - As mentioned on Martin Harper's blog yesterday, a great way for you to find out more and get involved would be to come along to one of the 11 Hen Harrier Day events being held across England and Scotland on the 6-7 August. These events have grown year on year since they started in 2014 and are a coming together of people who care deeply about hen harriers and want to see an end to the persecution that's keeping them from our hills. To find out more about your nearest event and see photos from previous years, visit henharrierday.org.
Blánaid you quote James Bray as saying
'a rapidly growing coalition of groups and individuals are fighting to change the way that the uplands are being managed and to stop the persecution of birds of prey.’
Please could you tell me more about these wonderful groups?