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
Some good news for 2017. Thanks for confirming that the tag failure, if that's what it is, is thought to be within the expected failure rate.
I, along with many others, am really hoping that the remaining tagged birds can survive to breed in 2017, and that raptors in general can look forward to a better 2017.