Skydancer - the UK's hen harriers

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.
  • Thor is no more: First hatched hen harrier in Bowland for three years disappears in suspicious circumstances

    This summer we were overjoyed to have hen harriers nesting in Bowland for the first time since 2015. Our project team worked round the clock to monitor the three nests there, and the parent birds fledged an amazing 13 chicks between them.

    Young hen harriers were fitted with tags as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we watched with anticipation as the chicks grew and started to fly away from their nests and make their way into the world. Unfortunately, it was unlucky 13 for one of our brood.

    Young male hen harrier Thor fledged from a nest of four chicks in the Forest of Bowland and his satellite tag was fitted in mid-June. After leaving the nest he remained in the vicinity for several months.

    His tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. His last known fix on 3 October 2018 showed he was over Goodber Common near Salter in Lancashire, adjacent to a managed driven grouse moor. This disappearance was reported to the police, and a search revealed no sign of the bird or his tag.

    Thor is the fourth bird to disappear in the past two months, following the disappearances of Hilma, Octavia and Heulwen in August this year. Alarmingly, the last known fix for Thor is directly between the sites where tagged hen harriers Hope and Sky were last heard from before they disappeared back in 2014.

     

    Thor as a youngster (photo: Steve Downing)

    James Bray, RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, was involved in monitoring the nests in Bowland over the summer, and watched as Thor hatched, grew and fledged from his nest. He says: “Whilst we know that hen harrier mortality rates are high for young birds - with a survival rate of around 22% within the first two years - if Thor had died naturally we would have expected to find some sign of him or his tag. His tag was functioning well before he disappeared, which sadly suggests there has been some kind of interference with it.”

    If anyone has any information as to what may have become of Thor, you can contact Lancashire Police on 101.

  • Hen harrier class of 2018

    Dr. Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, introduces the new cohort of tagged hen harriers for 2018.

    We were overjoyed this summer when we tagged an unprecedented amount of hen harrier chicks across the UK. The team hiked over bogs, moorland and mountains, often during heat wave conditions, to locate the nests and used their specialist expertise to fit lightweight tags to each feathery bundle.

    After the success of this year’s breeding season, it’s with mixed feeling that I’m introducing you to the class of 2018. You will have seen from our last blog post that we’ve already lost three of our 2018 tagged hen harriers in suspicious circumstances. We hope that the rest of this year’s cohort manage to survive a little longer.

    Hen harriers are one of the UK’s most persecuted birds of prey, and the breeding population in England is dangerously low with just nine successful nests this summer despite habitat for over 300 pairs. Fitting tags helps us learn more about the risks they face. We’re now crossing our fingers as we watch these young birds go out into the world.

    For now, we’d like to introduce you to twelve of them. This year we incorporated a couple of themes into the naming process. Some have been named after gods and goddesses, others pay homage to notable people, while some celebrate their national language and landscape.

    1. Thoth

    Thoth is a male chick tagged in the Scottish borders in 2018, named after the Egyptian god with the head of an ibis. His tag was sponsored by Scottish Borders Council to learn more about hen harrier movements in the Scottish borders.


    Thoth the male hen harrier (photo credit: Jack Ashton Booth)

    2. Vulcan

    Vulcan is a male chick tagged in Northumberland, and came from a nest of five chicks. His father is colour ringed and is from Langholm. He’s a favourite of our project team member Jack, and named after the Roman god of fire.


    Vulcan the hen harrier (photo credit: Jack Ashton Booth)

    3. Rain

    Rain was tagged at Bowland, and came from a nest of five chicks. She’s one of the first hen harriers chicks to be successfully raised in Bowland since 2015.

    Rain (photo credit: Steve Downing)

    4. Nyx

    Nyx was tagged at Bowland from a nest of five chicks and is one of the 13 birds to successfully fledge at Bowland this year. He is named after Nyx, the shape-shifting water spirit.

     

    Nyx (photo credit: Steve Downing)

    5. Thor

    One of a brood four, and the first of our chicks to be tagged this year. Thor was named after the famous god of thunder and was tagged on a nest at Bowland in collaboration with United Utilities estates.

    Thor (photo credit: Steve Downing)

    6. Doona

    Doona is a female chick tagged on Isle of Man, named by Dhoon School. Her name means ‘dark maiden’ and she was tagged in collaboration with Manx Birdlife.

    Doona (photo credit: Steve Downing)

    7. Arthur

    Arthur is a male chick tagged at the National Trust’s High Peak Moors. He is named after Arthur Hobhouse, who set out the philosophy behind our system of National Parks of England and Wales. Hobhouse argued that everyone should have access to fresh air and beautiful places. 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Arthur will be monitored in collaboration with raptor workers and the National Trust.


    Arthur (photo credit: Paul Thomas)

    8. Keen

    Keen is a female bird tagged in Perthshire from a nest of three chicks. She is the third bird to be tagged in an area of woodland managed sustainably by the community for the benefit of everyone, after DeeCee in 2016 and Heather in 2017.

     

    Keen (photo credit: Brian Etheridge)

    9. Marci

    Marci is a female chick and the third bird to be tagged at Mar Lodge, one of several chicks born there in 2018. Harriet and Calluna were also tagged there in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

    Marcie (photo credit: Shaila Rao)

    10. Hilma - missing

    Hilma was a female chick tagged at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders, and a sister to Thoth.

    Her tag was sponsored by the Scottish Borders Council to learn more about the movements of hen harriers in the borders. However, Hilma didn't travel very far. After she left her nest, she moved south into Northumberland. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 8 August showed she was near Wooler, Northumberland over land managed for driven grouse shooting.

    Hilma is the second tagged hen harrier to disappear in Northumberland in the past year, after we reported on the disappearance of Manu in October 2017, closely followed by his brother Marc in Cumbria in February 2018.

    Hilma (photo credit: Steve Downing)

     

    11. Heulwen - missing

    Heulwen was a female chick tagged in Gwynedd in North Wales. Her name was chosen because it means ‘sunny’ in Welsh. After she left her nest, Heulwen travelled through north Wales, across Snowdonia and eastwards towards Wrexham. Her satellite tag was transmitting regularly untili it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 29 August shows she was in the vicinity of Ruabon Mountain. Heulwen was not far from where Aalin, one of our 2016  tagged bird cohort, went missing on 9 February 2018.

    Heulwen (photo credit: Guy Anderson)

    12. Octavia - missing

     

    Octavia is a female chick tagged at the National Trust’s High Peak Moors from the first successful nest in the Peak District since 2014. She was named after Octavia Hill, one of the three founders of the National Trust. On the 22 August she moved onto privately-owned driven grouse moors near Sheffield. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 26 August showed she was over an area of land managed for driven grouse shooting at Broomhead.

    Octavia (photo credit: Steve Downing)

    Jenny Shelton from our Investigations team explains more in this video:

    If you're having trouble viewing the video on our blog page, you can go directly to youtube: https://youtu.be/x-mqn3tEPhU

        

     

  • Three more hen harriers disappear suddenly

    Dr Cathleen Thomas, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, reports on the sudden disappearances of three more tagged hen harriers in England and Wales in suspicious circumstances.

    Just weeks after celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK this summer, the sobering reality of the continued illegal killing of our birds of prey was brought firmly into light with the suspicious disappearance of three satellite tagged birds in England and Wales.

    All of the birds were fitted with satellite tags this summer as part of the RSPB’s EU-funded Hen Harrier LIFE project and we were regularly tracking their movements as they left their nests and started to make their way into the world. We’d hoped against hope that they’d at least manage to survive for a year or two, but we’re very sad to see that these three birds only lasted a couple of months.

    Young female harrier Hilma was tagged in June 2018 at a nest on Forestry Commission Scotland-owned land in the Scottish Borders. After she left her nest, she moved across into Northumberland. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 8 August showed she was near Wooler, Northumberland over land managed for driven grouse shooting.

    Hilma is the second tagged bird to disappear in Northumberland in the past year, after we reported on the disappearance of Manu in October 2017, closely followed by his brother Marc in Cumbria in February 2018.

    Hilma. Photo - Steve Downing

    A few weeks later another female bird, Octavia, vanished without trace. She hatched from a nest on National Trust’s High Peak Moors in the Peak District National Park in June. This was the first time the species had bred in this area for four years. Again, we had high hopes that the tables may have turned in favour of our hen harriers and we watched anxiously as she began to spread her wings.

    Octavia stayed faithfully close to her nest, until the 22 August when she moved onto privately-owned driven grouse moors near Sheffield. Her tag was transmitting regularly when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 26 August showed she was over an area of land managed for driven grouse shooting at Broomhead.

    Octavia. Photo - Steve Downing

    Just three days later, a bird in north Wales also disappeared. Heulwen was born on a nest in Gwynedd, North Wales, her name was chosen as it is Welsh for ‘sunny’. After she left her nest, Heulwen travelled through north Wales, across Snowdonia and eastwards towards Wrexham. Her satellite was transmitting regularly until it suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Her last known fix on 29 August show she was within the vicinity of Ruabon Mountain. Heulwen was not far from where Aalin, one of our 2016 cohort, went missing on 9 February 2018.

    Heulwen. Photo - Guy Anderson

    Satellite tagging technology is commonly used to follow the movements of birds and tags continue to transmit regularly, even if the bird dies. The tags were all providing regular updates on the birds’ locations, so the sudden and unexpected ending of transmissions from three birds all near grouse moors is suspicious, which is why the police are involved in all three cases.

    For each of the birds, we have data on the location of their last transmission, which are shown in the maps below. We don’t know anything further about the movements of any of these birds after their last fixes. All three birds were searched for but were not recovered. It is expected that a bird that dies from natural causes the tag will continue to transmit data and provide the opportunity to be found on a follow up search.   

      

    Last known fix of Hilma


    Last known fix of Octavia


    Last known fix of Heulwen

    Hen harriers are one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey with only nine successful nests recorded in England in 2018 despite sufficient habitat for over 300 pairs. It is widely understood that the main reason for their low numbers is illegal killing associated with intensive management of driven grouse moors.

    Just a few weeks ago we were celebrating the breeding success of hen harriers in the UK, but already these young chicks are disappearing in suspicious circumstances when they are just a few months old. It’s devastating for those of us involved in watching and protecting these chicks and terrible news for a birds of prey species that has shown a 24% decline in numbers between 2004 and 2016.

    While we don’t yet know what has happened to these three birds, we do know that the main factor reducing the hen harrier population in the UK is illegal killing of birds associated with the intensive management of grouse moors.

    If anyone has any information about the disappearance of any of these birds, please call the police on 101 – or if you have sensitive information which you want to discuss in confidence with the RSPB, you can use the Raptor Crime Hotline 0300 999 0101.