Guest blog by Jenny Shelton of the RSPB Investigations team
The RSPB's Mark Thomas talks about Sally and Roger's remarkable journey
The first of May marked the meeting of two lovebirds after a long winter apart. Sally and Roger, a pair of rare Montagu’s harriers, raised two chicks together in Norfolk in summer 2016 then went their separate ways. But they were destined to find each other again. While one spent the winter in Ghana, the other was in Senegal, and in March this year both began their long and arduous journey across mountains, desert and sea, to rekindle their summer romance.
Our leading man and lady are one of just five pairs of Montagu’s harriers breeding in the UK. These slim, elegant birds of prey return to the UK just to breed, often (somewhat miraculously) re-locating and re-using the same nest sites. Males are a chalky blue-grey with black wingtips and arresting yellow eyes, females are shades of brown and cream. They nest on the ground, hidden within crops. Any eggs they lay are so precious they may as well be golden, and at this time of year the RSPB and local farmers have their eyes to the skies to watch for the returning harriers, so that they can mark and monitor the nests, and identify any new ones.
Martin Hughes-Games releases Sally
The tags they wear also allow us to find out more about the birds’ migration location and the threats they face en route. Sally even made a star appearance on Winterwatch last year being tagged by Martin Hughes-Games.
It’s thanks to this specialist sat nav technology that we’ve been able to follow Roger and Sally’s epic journey from West Africa to the East of England. It reads like a road trip movie, with plenty of twists and turns, famous landmarks (the Sahara Desert! Casablanca! Ibiza!) and unexpected encounters along the way.
Two birds, 45 days, 1000 miles! (Photo credit Roger Wyatt)
It began on 17 March when Roger set off from Senegal. No-one fully knows how birds decide on the exact moment to start a 2,700-mile migration, but it’s triggered somewhat by the weather. A week later, 1000 miles away in Ghana, Sally – our plucky, dark-eyed heroine – also took to the wing. Cue opening credits.
Initially, Sally seemed to be following her heart: her transmitter showed her heading West, straight for Roger. Perhaps they’d travel back to Britain together? On 4 April, over the Western Sahara, they almost, tantalisingly met. But suddenly (thinking she wasn’t coming, perhaps?) Roger took off on his own, travelling up through Morocco without her.
Then Sally made an unexpected move: instead of following Roger she turned East and met up with a second tagged bird, an older female with light eyes called Beatriz who had been flying by a different route. The two girls met in Algeria and spent the Easter weekend there; meanwhile Roger had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and was flying up through Spain alone.
The females parted company to cross the Mediterranean. Adding some dramatic tension, Beatriz, now in Spain, made a b-line for Roger... did we have a love triangle on our hands? Male Montys are notoriously polyamorous and will pair with several females. Sally responded by taking 24 hours off in Ibiza (you couldn’t make it up!) before landing in Marseilles.
Beatriz and Roger flew up the West coast of France together, Sally progressing up through wine country, but then Beatriz left Roger behind and was the first of the three to cross the channel and make it home. She returned to her nest site in South West England, where her mate Mark was patiently waiting.
On the first day of May, at last, Sally joined Roger in Norfolk. I went there to look for them, bringing journalist Anna Hill from Farming Today, plus two Montagu’s specialists, the RSPB’s Mark Thomas and Bob Image. We drove to the secret site where they were last seen, and as we turned up a dirt track who should appear, soaring overhead, but Sally herself, riding the wind magnificently. We spilled out of the car and went to watch her. As we did, in a flash of silver, Roger came into view, banking and drifting above the hedgerows, cutting through the air like a blade.
It was incredible to see the two of them back together after so long apart. They were clearly communicating; often Sally would follow in pursuit of Roger as they renewed their bonds and scouted the area for a suitable place to nest. They’re fast, too, covering ground with just a few effortless beats of their long wings.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Hopefully they’ll raise chicks again this year – stay tuned.
You can find out more about our tagged Montagu’s, and get live updates, on Twitter: @UKmontagus