The RSPB's Bowland Project Officer James Bray gives the lowdown on Bowland's special new visitor.
RSPB staff and volunteers on the United Utilities estate in Bowland are out in the hills monitoring and protecting birds of prey every day of the week in all types of weather. We have been spending much of our time looking for returning hen harriers over the past few weeks in some rather un-spring-like weather so yesterday I was elated when I looked up and saw a mature male harrier skydancing low over my head. The bird disappeared out of sight down a gulley very quickly so I headed to a different position for a different view, happy that another male hen harrier was back on the estate.
Over the next few hours the harrier was skydancing and hunting the slopes, mostly at very long range in a welcome bit of heat haze. I gradually got better and better views, and as the sun dropped a bit I began to strongly suspect that it was actually a pallid harrier. I called a good friend who was nearby and as we returned to the site the harrier flew low along the opposite hill giving superb views for the first time, allowing us to confirm that it was a mature male pallid harrier. Pallid harriers are rare visitors to the UK, most recently juvenile birds in the autumn. Adult males are exceptionally rare in the UK but one was seen near Hornsea in East Yorkshire early last Sunday morning and this is likely to be the same bird.
Thanks must go to Mark Breaks for the photographs of this stunning bird. It’s not a hen harrier (the focus of my work), but I didn’t allow that to temper my excitement at having found a very beautiful and rare bird. We would like other birders to see this bird but must ask that people strictly follow the access arrangements as detailed below.
Please be aware that the pallid harrier is in a valley that is a four km walk from the nearest public parking. The walk is on a private road and vehicle access is only permitted for estate workers and the tenants that live and work here. BIRDERS MUST NOT drive along this road, and will be asked to leave if they do.
Cars must only be parked in the pay and display car park in Dunsop Village at SD662502. The road to walk on is then accessed by walking west through the village (toward Lancaster and the Trough) over the river and take the first right. Follow this road north for approximately 3.5 kms up the Dunsop Valley until the road splits. Take the right hand split and walk for another 500 metres. The harrier has been hunting the slopes below the cairn on the hill on the other side of the river. Best views have been had from around the first cattle grid that you reach on this road after the split (approximately SD659543).
There are schedule 1 species nesting on the estate so it is vital that people coming to watch the harrier stick to the tracks so as not to cause disturbance at what is a really sensitive time in the breeding season. Please feel free to ask anyone that you see off the road to stick to the road!
We must also respect the goodwill of United Utilities, the land owner, as well as their tenants, who are incredibly supportive of our work so please stick rigorously to these access arrangements. There is a very nice cafe in Dunsop Village (Puddleducks) and there are toilets by the pay and display car park. Thank you, and good birding!
Richard Johnstone is the organiser of the Music on the Marr folk festival, which takes place in Cumbria each summer. Here he tells us why the hen harrier has been chosen as the symbol of this year's festival and how the artistic amongst you could see your very own hen harrier design emblazoned across the chests of hundreds of this year's festival goers.
Each year in late July, the lovely North Cumbrian village of Castle Carrock, nestled under the Geltsdale fells, hosts Music on the Marr, a three-day music festival showcasing outstanding folk and roots acts from near and far. The moors above the village partly comprise the RSPB's Geltsdale reserve, one of the very few recent breeding grounds of the hen harrier in Northern England.
Each year the festival produces a new commemorative T-shirt and has on this occasion decided to feature the hen harrier, partly to raise awareness of its endangered state and partly to welcome it as a neighbour of our festival. The T-shirt design is open to public competition, and the winner will receive two weekend passes to the festival on 21-23rd July this year. The competition is only open until Thursday 20th April though, so you'd better be quick! To read all the T&Cs and find out how to submit your entry, visit the Music on the Marr website here.
A female hen harrier at RSPB's Geltsdale, in 2016. (Mark Thomas: rspb-images.com)
This wonderful film shot at last year's event gives a flavour of the intimate and friendly nature of this event. Just as our area is visited by throngs of migrating birds at this time of year so the festival welcomes performers from such far flung places as the Congo, Zimbabwe and Senegal not to mention all parts of the UK.
The festival's motto, which the village's road signs helpfully reflect is "Please Dance", but this year we'll be changing it to "Please Sky Dance" for obvious reasons! So please visit the festival website and, even if no designs spring to mind take a look at the impressive array of acts lined up and perhaps plan a visit combining the joys of fine folk music with the beauty of RSPB Geltsdale, and who knows? Maybe even a glimpse of an elusive hen harrier...