Our new(ish) Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas reflects on her first few months in the role.
Avid followers may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately. Some of you will know that Blánaid Denman left the Hen Harrier LIFE project in August to become the RSPB’s Area Conservation Manager for the North East and Cumbria. Blánaid has done some great work on the project and we’re sad to see her go, but the baton has been passed on and I now have the privilege of managing the Hen Harrier LIFE project through to its end.
I’ve had a mind boggling couple of months getting up to speed with our hen harriers as the project reaches the halfway point. This year we satellite tagged more birds than ever before and it’s amazing to see how much we’re learning about their dispersal and range, providing vital evidence to help protect this beautiful and threatened bird of prey. It’s particularly interesting for me as during my PhD I studied movements of ladybird populations. Since we didn’t have the technology to put tiny tags on ladybirds, I had the laborious task of analysing DNA to estimate movements between populations, so I’m really excited to see the amazing ecological insights we can gather as technology advances.
Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas - image by Nicola Thomas
As we follow the birds we can start to explore individual differences and build up a picture of how they move around the UK and beyond. You may be familiar with DeeCee, a female hen harrier who was born in Scotland in 2016 and was fitted with a satellite tag just before she fledged from her nest last summer. We’ve been able to follow her movements and saw that she spent the winter at a roost in Mull, travelled down to Argyll this summer, then returned east to Aberdeenshire where she successfully raised three chicks with her partner, two of which we tagged this year - Sirius and Skylar. Whilst DeeCee remained in Scotland, other Scottish birds have travelled to the continent, such as Chance who travelled to France and Tony who travelled to Spain. This is an amazing feat, particularly when you consider that these birds are often only a couple of months old when they make these journeys.
Following the birds during their lifetimes shows us some interesting things, but sadly we also see that first year mortality is high for hen harriers. Satellite tags allow us to build up a picture of the lives and fates of hen harriers. Whilst some have gone missing without explanation, the birds we are able to retrieve allow us to investigate the cause of death. Birds that have been found shot in recent years and video footage of hen harriers being persecuted serve as reminders of the risks faced by these young birds. Tagging so many birds will hopefully allow us to better understand the risk factors for young birds, where they face the biggest threats and what proportion of them survive their first year and beyond.
The project focuses on seven Special Protection Areas in the UK, and to support this direct conservation work we’re in the process of carrying out a public attitudes questionnaire, to help us understand how much people know about hen harriers in and around areas where they are protected. This will help us to target our community engagement work to make the biggest difference for our hen harriers and find more hen harrier heroes to champion the species.
All in all, it's an exciting time to be joining the Hen Harrier LIFE project and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds over the coming years!