Andrew Armstrong is a wildlife photographer local to RSPB's Wallasea Wetlands reserve. Andrew’s stunning hen harrier photographs first came to our attention on Twitter where he posts under @drumon25. Impressed by his passion for the birds which clearly shines through his photography, we invited him to share what it feels like to capture these rare glimpses into the private life of one of our most spectacular birds of prey.
As a wildlife photographer I have been visiting RSPB Wallasea Island for three years, predominantly in the winter when the raptors congregate over the site. Marsh Harrier, Buzzard, Peregrine, Merlin and especially Short Eared Owls show really well during the winter, making for wonderful photography opportunities. The real prize is getting the opportunity to watch, and hopefully photograph, the Hen Harriers as they overwinter here. Over the two previous years I have had infrequent sightings of this marvellous raptor (both male and female) and was only able to get distant images.
This year has been incredible on the island as there has been up to three female Hen Harriers and one male all quartering. I have had success with getting images of the female Hen Harriers but the male has proven more cautious, quartering away from the newly opened footpaths.
The habitat dynamics on the island offer excellent overwintering feeding options for a whole host of passerines. The winter bird crop cover areas have proved more than useful quartering locations for the Hen Harriers and I have been fortunate enough to witness several successful hunts. There is nothing quite like watching a Hen Harrier gliding just above the top of the winter bird crop cover, constantly adjusting and occasionally suddenly diving onto prey. I have seen the females predating mostly small mammals until recently whilst the male looks to be working the passerine flocks.
On the occasion I took the images of the male Hen Harrier, he had been quartering the wild bird cover as usual. He is incredibly methodical in his approach and would periodically hover over areas in an attempt to flush any prey. Large flocks of passerines, mostly Corn Buntings, would scatter in panic as he quartered past. As he moved through an area he suddenly re-positioned and dropped onto prey. He remained on the ground for about 15 minutes, which tends to suggest he may have been successful.
It was a real privilege to have this fleeting insight into the lives of these incredible birds.
If you're lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please let us know by contacting the Hen Harrier Hotline on 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information on the date, time, location (6-figure grid reference if possible), description of the bird, and what it was doing (eg hunting, flying over, skydancing, roosting) will help us to keep track of these birds and direct our on the ground conservation efforts.
As far as positive starts to the New Year go; the news of the possible rediscovery of our missing 2014 female, Highlander, was a pretty fantastic way to kick off 2017. This was shortly followed by a phone call from a farmer in Cumbria who was only too delighted to tell me about the hen harriers roosting in his rushy fields. The palpable excitement and pride in his voice was a wonderful reminder of the power of these graceful birds to captivate and inspire – a welcome sign of hope for the future of hen harriers in our hillsides.
Hen Harrier over rushy pasture. Photo: Lin Lyon
For the most part, our remaining birds continue to fare well and seem to have settled down for the winter in their favoured roosts – Wendy on Ulva, just off the coast of Mull, Finn in Ayrshire, Carroll in Northumberland, DeeCee in the Cairngorms, and Harriet in the Lake District, while our Manx Bird Aalin seems determined to continue her slow but steady progress south and is currently residing in Shropshire.
Finn’s gradual path west from Northumberland to South Ayrshire.
Unfortunately, the good news wasn’t to last and it’s with a heavy heart that I have to tell you our young Geltsdale male, Bonny, is now missing and is presumed to have died.
The first hen harrier chick to fledge from our Geltsdale reserve in 10 years and the only one in the whole of the North Pennines SPA last year, Bonny’s nest was sensitively and remotely monitored round the clock by a 24/7 watch of dedicated RSPB staff and volunteers from throughout the local community. The support of Geltsdale’s joint owners, the Weir Trust, in this work is something for which we were also very grateful.
In a year that saw just seven hen harrier chicks fledge from three nests in England, Bonny quickly became a celebrity, featuring on both BBC’s Autumnwatch and the national BBC Six News. His name was selected by Chris Packham from over 2,000 entries into LUSH Cosmetics’ hen harrier naming competition; a partnership which has seen a fantastic contribution made to hen harrier conservation by funds raised through sales of LUSH’s Skydancer bathbomb.
You can read more about Bonny’s story here.
Bonny with his newly fitted satellite tag being held by RSPB's Guy Anderson. Photo: Mark Thomas
Unusually for a male hen harrier, Bonny remained faithfully close to his nest site after fledging, never venturing further than 10 km or so from our Geltsdale reserve. Sadly, no data has been received from his tag since 14th December and while we have no information to suggest what might have happened to him, we now believe it most likely that Bonny has died. His last known location was on an area of moorland a few kilometres to the east of Geltsdale but despite a search of the area, no body was found, so unfortunately it’s unlikely that we will ever know the cause of death.
I realise this news may come as a real blow to those who have told me they see Bonny as a symbol of hope for hen harriers in England but I would argue that his death doesn’t detract from this. Despite his short life, the media attention generated by this young harrier probably did more for raising awareness about these birds than all of our other 2016 birds combined (did I mention he was on the national Six o’clock news??). Not only that, the fact of Bonny’s successful fledging against the odds was a testament to the hard graft of so many staff, and especially volunteers, dedicating hour after hour in a midge-infested hide simply to watch over him. If that doesn’t perfectly encapsulate the passion that exists for these spectacular birds and the determination to see them restored to our hills, then I don’t know what does.
Paul Morton from Lush campaigns had this to say:
“We're really sad to hear about the loss of Bonny, his short life was an inspiration to so many people and a credit to all those that worked so hard to protect him before and after fledging. The future of Hen Harriers still hangs in the balance and with so many others already going missing in the last 12 months the vital satellite tagging work the RSPB do to monitor these birds is now more important than ever.”
Hen harriers are known to return to successful breeding sites year after year and if they do come back to Geltsdale, we’ll be ready and waiting for them with open arms.
The 2017 breeding season is just around the corner...
It’s a rare delight in the world of hen harriers to be able to start the New Year with some good news, but I am utterly astonished and elated to report that Highlander, a female hen harrier which fledged from United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland in 2014, and who suddenly and unexpectedly went missing in County Durham in April 2016, has possibly been found alive!
Highlander and her sibling, Sky, just after having their satellite tags fitted, in Bowland, 2014. (Image: Jude Lane)
To most people, Highlander is the eponymous lead character, played by Christopher Lambert, in the classic 1986 British-American action fantasy film, about an immortal Scottish swordsman on an epic quest. As our own Highlander was “adopted” by children from the local Brennand’s Endowed Primary School however, I’m going to hazard a guess it’s unlikely they had that particular kilt-wearing protagonist in mind when choosing a name for our young female. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a more fitting name for a bird that apparently against all expectation, seems to keep surviving.
The classic 1986 film, Highlander.
The full story of Highlander’s tenacity can be read in the blog we posted in early June 2016, around the time of her disappearance. However, here’s a quick reminder of this exceptional bird’s life story:
June 2014: Four hen harrier chicks from two nests are ringed and satellite tagged by Natural England in partnership with RSPB on the United Utilities estate in the Forest of Bowland. Two of these are “adopted” by children from Brennand’s Endowed Primary School, who name the young females, Sky and Highlander.
September 2014: Highlander starts to explore areas to the south of Bowland but her sister, Sky, and a tagged female from the other Bowland nest, Hope, suddenly disappear within days of each other in suspicious circumstances. They are never found.
Winter 2014/15: Highlander spends the winter months favouring a few particular roost sites within 30 miles of Bowland.
March 2015: She returns to Bowland
April 2015: She pairs up with a third-year adult male and they start the process of nest-building and egg-laying.
May 2015: Highlander’s mate is the first of four adult males with active nests in Bowland to inexplicably and suspiciously vanish while hunting away from their nest sites that summer. Having been forced to abandon her nest to hunt, Highlander quickly pairs with a young male and resumes her nesting attempt, laying a record total of nine eggs between both mates. Highlander’s new mate is discovered to be polygamous and, struggling to provide for his two females, he abandons Highlander to fend for herself, resulting in the failure of her nest.
June 2015: She leaves Bowland for southern Scotland but returns a week later and pairs with a third male.
July 2015: Highlander’s first chick hatches but just five days later, the nest is predated and all young are lost.
Autumn/Winter 2015/16: She returns to her favoured roosts from the previous winter.
March 2016: Highlander returns to Bowland for several short visits but doesn’t stay.
April 2016: Highlander's tag stops transmitting. Her last known location is in County Durham.
Highlander's second nesting attempt with an incredible 9 eggs. (Image: James Bray, 2015)
Here’s what we said about her disappearance at the time:
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.
...until now (maybe)!
In October 2016, an unknown satellite-tagged hen harrier was seen at roost near to where Highlander spent her two previous winters. Initially it had us stumped – neither we, nor Stephen Murphy at Natural England, had birds registering as being in that area and the BTO confirmed that no one else has been fitting tags to hen harriers in the UK. We contacted the only other hen harrier tracking projects in Europe, one in Ireland and one in Germany, but neither of them could claim this mystery bird either. With the dedicated help of local raptor workers, we’ve since confirmed the bird as an adult female, with no colour rings, a single BTO ring on the correct leg, but the real clincher... a tag aerial which bends very slightly to the left – all of which match with this bird being Highlander.
Of course with no signal coming from the tag, it’s impossible to be 100% certain of the ID but the facts available are certainly very suggestive that this is more than just coincidence. So if it is actually Highlander, where did she go? And what happened to her tag? The bend in the aerial had been there from the start, so it can’t be to blame for the loss of signal.
The short answer to both of these questions is we will probably never know. Satellite tags of this type are designed to last for up to 5 years (though sadly, hen harriers rarely seem to live that long). Highlander’s tag was two years old and is the only confirmed failure out of 23 RSPB-monitored hen harrier satellite tags deployed in the last 3 years (ie a 4% failure rate). Researchers at the Dutch Montagu’s Harrier Foundation have previously recorded a 6% technical failure rate (out of 67 birds tagged) using exactly the same make and model of satellite tag, with all failures occurring on tags older than at least one year. This puts the failure of this bird’s tag well within the realms of expected normality, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that something like this would happen sooner or later.
Whatever the reason for her tag failure and indeed, whether this bird is actually Highlander or not, her rediscovery is undeniably a cause for celebration. The tricky business now will be keeping track of her without a functioning tag. And of course if this is Highlander, the big question is... will she return to Bowland to breed this summer?
We’ll be watching and waiting...
If you're lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please help us keep track by submit your sightings (description of the bird, time, date, location with grid reference if possible) to our Hen Harrier Hotline on 08454600121 (calls charged at local rates) or email email@example.com.
Follow the fortunes of our other satellite-tagged hen harriers by visiting: www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer