August, 2016

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.
  • Guest blog: Finn the hen harrier takes flight

     Findlay Wilde is the young conservationist and blogger behind Wilde About Birds.

    Finn is a young female hen harrier who, together with her three brothers, fledged from one of two nests on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland this month. Finn was satellite tagged as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project and is named after Findlay, who was one of the winners of Ecotricity’s Young Green Briton competition last year. Run by Britain’s leading green energy company, the competition looks to find the country’s greenest youngsters and gives them a chance to speak about a key environmental topic on stage at WOMAD Festival. Ecotricity was so impressed by Findlay’s passion and focus on the issue of hen harriers that the company funded the satellite tag. 

    Here, Findlay shares with us that passion for hen harriers and his hopes for our feathered Finn.

    I can still vividly remember the very first time I saw a hen harrier. It was high up on the North Wales moors. The fine rain and mist covered my face in water and the low cloud limited my views over the vast landscape.  Despite the rain and mist, I resolved to walk even further up the moors, but my plans to keep going suddenly came to an abrupt stop. A grey ghost, elegant and effortless, glided past within 10 metres of where I stood. He soared effortlessly on the wind, appearing and reappearing through the sloping hills.

    I am sure many of you out there worry about the way the world is changing and what the future holds for the next generation and the challenges they will face.  Well wildlife of course has to face up to all these changes and challenges too; changes that they have not caused, but will suffer from.

    An important thing to remember throughout this blog post is that chilling statistic that we have lost almost 50% of our world wildlife over the last 40 years. This really shows how important it is to protect, nurture and speak out for the natural world.  Many species are already struggling due to loss of habitat and climate change, but throw illegal persecution in to the mix and the situation just gets worse.  

    So what does the future hold for a young hen harrier named Finn? What are her chances?

    Finn (right) and her three brothers in the nest. Photo: Martin Davison

    It’s hard sometimes to explain the difficulties faced by these birds, but try thinking of hen harriers as a massive dot to dot picture puzzle.  Think of each dot as one of our much needed hen harriers. We need hundreds of dots to realise the picture we want. But the dots keep disappearing. Sky, Hope, Chance, the 5 males that went missing last year, forcing the females to abandon their nest, and most recently the disappearance of newly fledged Elwood over a grouse moor.  All those vital dots erased.  

    The end picture we all want for hen harriers doesn’t look good at the moment, so we have to ensure we get all the future dots in the right place.  Each connection line between the dots is all the hard work going on to protect them and stop their persecution, but it’s frustrating that our connection lines seem to be getting longer and longer.  Each plotted dot for the future represents hope and our efforts and successes, strengthening the picture we all want to see.

    Although I want to be optimistic, Finn’s chances of survival are not good, and it feels terrible to have to say that. She has fledged in an area surrounded by grouse moors; but she has spirit. When she first fledged she did not hang about the nest site as you would have expected, she flew to the coast first and since then has explored the surrounding area. But each of these flights put her in harm’s way as of course she doesn’t understand where the safe areas are.  Finn is going to have so many challenges to overcome, but my big wish for her is that illegal persecution is no longer one of them.  

    Finn about to receive her satellite tag. Photo: Martin Davison

    I urge you all to follow Finn’s journey and watch her progress. I urge you to tell other people about her and how important she is as one of those vital dots that will create the future picture we all want to see. Awareness of raptor persecution is growing, and there is a lot of momentum, but we have to keep this going. The natural world across the globe cannot afford to keep losing.

    .................................

    I must say a massive thank you to the RSPB LIFE team and Ecotricity for enabling Finn to be monitored through the satellite tagging scheme.  When I first approached Dale Vince and Helen Taylor of Ecotricity at the 2015 WOMAD festival, I could never have imagined the opportunity this would create.  You can read more about that story here http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/wilde-about-finn.html

    Thanks Findlay! And here's a final note from Helen Taylor at Ecotricity:

    When we first met Finn just over a year ago we were blown away by his passion and dedication to protect hen harriers, and he inspired us to support his conservation work. It has been fantastic to work with him and the RSPB since then on the tagging project and we’re thrilled that the chick named in his honour has now fledged and is exploring its local area.

     We all have a responsibility to protect the wonderful wildlife in this country and the hen harrier is one of our most vulnerable, so we must do all we can to make a difference – before it’s too late.

    Both Northumberland hen harrier nests this year were protected by the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership, which includes the Forestry Commission, MOD, Natural England, Northumberland National Park Authority, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Northumbria Police and local raptor workers. This is the second year in a row that hen harriers have fledged successfully from this site. 

    From the end of the summer, you'll be able to follow Finn's progress online at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer

      

  • Introducing a Bonny wee hen harrier

    With the notable exception of Henry, few living hen harriers manage to achieve national celebrity status. But at barely six weeks old, our young male, Bonny, is already well used to the public eye, after the fitting of his satellite tag by trained and licensed RSPB staff was filmed and featured on the national BBC Six News last week, as well as a radio edit on BBC R4's PM programme (available here until 17th Sept). 

    Bonny with his newly fitted satellite tag being held by RSPB's Guy Anderson. Photo: Mark Thomas

    Bonny was the only chick to hatch from a clutch of five eggs on RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve this year, marking the first successful nest on the reserve in since 2006, and only the second successful nest in the whole of the North Pennines in the last 10 years. He is one of a number of hen harriers to be satellite tagged as part of RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project across England, Scotland and the Isle of Man this year.

    Bonny in his nest at one week old. Photo: Steve Garnett

    His name was selected by Chris Packham from over 2,300 entries into the #nameandsave competition, run by LUSH cosmetics, to celebrate the incredible £122,000 raised by their skydancer bathbombs to support hen harrier conservation. Watch Chris announcing the winner here:

     

    Right from the beginning, Bonny's life has been a rollercoaster journey. His mother, a mature female, arrived on the reserve back in May and it quickly became apparent that she was eager for a mate, skydancing (a trait normally reserved for males but used by females in times of desperation) and building dummy nests, but all to no avail. There were no males to be seen.

    Several weeks later, when a male finally did appear, it's safe to say she appeared to be deeply unimpressed - he was young and immature, still very brown and yet to earn his adult grey plumage. Normally in a healthy population of hen harriers, a young male like this wouldn't get a look in. But with so few birds in England this year, the female had little option but to accept his advances or leave breeding to another year.

    Bonny's mother - a beautiful mature female hen harrier. Photo: Mark Thomas

    As soon as the nesting attempt was confirmed, dedicated RSPB staff and volunteers mounted a 24/7 watch, special remote monitoring cameras were placed near the nest, and supplementary food was provided under licence, to ensure that this family of hen harriers had the best possible chance of survival and success. As it turned out, had the supplementary food not been provided, our immature male's inexperience could have proved disastrous. Though a reasonably effective hunter, he was hopelessly inattentive of his now-dependent female, frequently heading off for days at a time before reappearing with another small food offering. The extra food provided by RSPB thankfully ensured that the female never had to go far from the nest to feed herself or her chick. 

    RSPB Moorland Warden, Steve Garnett, placing day-old chicks and white rats on the supplementary feeding post. All supplementary feeding is carried out under appropriate licence from Natural England. Photo: Mark Thomas

    Having received his satellite tag on the 15th August, Bonny is now busily testing his wings and practicing his hunting skills around the reserve, under the continued close watch of our staff and volunteers. It won't be long before he starts venturing further afield and when he does, you'll be able to follow his movements online at rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer.

    Good luck, Bonny, and stay safe! 

  • Guest Blog: Aalin, the sat-tagged Manx Hen Harrier takes to the air

    Neil Morris is the Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. Here he shares his thoughts and hopes for Aalin, the second hen harrier to be satellite tagged on the Isle of Man as part of a partnership between Manx BirdLife and RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project. 

    I’m a complete convert to Manx culture and the beauty and character of the Manx countryside, having relatively recently exchanged the blistering heat of the Qatari desert for the cool climes of the Isle of Man.. 

    On just my third day on the island while tidying up the garden, I looked up to see a Hen Harrier drifting over the hills behind our house. This was my introduction to ‘Manx’ Hen Harriers.

    Roll forward eighteen months and my family loves the place. To the south, rugged heather moorlands drop spectacularly to dramatic granite cliffs. While to the north, rolling green hills akin to the Malverns give way gently to low sandstone cliffs and long pebble and sand stretches of coast.

    With a healthy Manx population of Hen Harriers, it’s possible to see them on the way to work, on the school run and even while doing the shopping. The rural, compact nature of the island gives an omnipotence to the Hen Harrier and other ‘high value’ species such as Peregrine, Hooded Crow and Chough. They are always just around the next corner.

    And so it was that I was delighted to swap my marketing career, with all the thrills and spills of a London commute, for my new role as Managing Director of Manx BirdLife. I have always been passionate about birds and wildlife. Indeed, the formative years of my career were spent at RSPB HQ in Sandy and I have been itching to ‘get back to my roots’ ever since.

    Aalin with her newly fitted satellite tag. Photo credit: Sean Gray

    This year’s satellite tagging of a young female Hen Harrier offers the chance to make up the ground lost when last year’s tagged Hen Harrier, Hetty, suffered an early demise. Like Hetty before her, Aalin has been named by the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment, sponsors of the Manx Hen Harrier tagging project (part of RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE programme). Fittingly, Aalin means ‘beauty’ in the revived Manx language. She was tagged in July and has since left the nest, though appears reluctant to stray too far. We await with baited breath her first forays farther afield – perhaps down to the coast like many other local Harriers, or perhaps she might attempt to cross the Irish Sea to England, Wales, Scotland or even Ireland. On a clear day, we can see all four countries from that same hill behind our house.

    Whatever she decides to do, Aalin’s wanderings will provide valuable data which will add to the overall understanding of Hen Harrier behaviour across the British Isles. Our local community is excited by the project and eagerly awaits updates on the satellite data. But like everywhere, the Manx countryside is threatened by over-population, development and disturbance, though thankfully wilful persecution appears to be rare.

    Aalin - the future of Manx hen harriers. Photo credit: James Leonard

    Keeping Aalin in the public eye and maintaining the islanders’ desire to look after the precious Manx countryside and the wild birds to which it provides a home is so important. While it’s tempting to dream that the island might get back to the heady days of 60 Hen Harrier nests each season, it’s vital we focus our energies on the 30 or so nesting attempts we have had this year. We must do all we can to learn about Aalin’s needs and vulnerabilities. That way we can devise conservation plans to protect her and future generations of this magnificent ‘sky dancer’.

    My thanks are due to the RSPB LIFE team, the Manx Ringing Group, the Society for the Preservation of the Manx Countryside and Environment and James Leonard. Fingers crossed, Aalin will be digitally signing in for a long while to come!