Category: RSPB Skydancer Project

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day murals

A flock of painted hen harriers has appeared across the UK in the form of three striking murals. These incredible creations have sprung up as part of Hen Harrier Day 2020: one at former home of Hen Harrier Day Rainham Marshes in Essex, one in Hartoft, in the heart of the North Yorks Moors and the other just outside Inverness. They’re a tribute to people’s passion for these inspirational birds, and aim to serve as a visual reminder of the beauty and the plight of hen harriers in the UK. Rainham Mural Many of you will be familiar with the site at Rainham, which has played host to Hen Harrier Day on three occasions between 2016 and 2018. This striking female hen harrier has been painted by street Artist ATM on the entrance wall of the reserve. ATM told us: “It took two days to paint and a lot of consideration and sketches beforehand to work out the best way to use the space of that particular wall to capture a sense of movement in the bird. I’m very happy with it. I feel I caught something of the spirit of a male hen harrier, ‘the ghost of the moors’. “This is the fourth piece of hen harrier street art I’ve painted for Hen Harrier Day. The first was for Charlie Moores and BAWC in 2014, a male on a pillbox on the Isle of Sheppey, a spot over which they migrate. In July 2014 I also painted a female for the Whitecross Street Festival in East London, using the hashtag #HenHarrierDay, and handed out leaflets about hen harrier persecution (which no-one knew about; they didn’t even know about hen harriers). That’s why I do street art at festivals and other places, to try to reach new audiences. “I painted a female at the 2015 Upfest Street Art Festival in Bristol, again with the hashtag #HenHarrierDay. There are lots of photographers and bloggers at that event, so I’m sure it got widely disseminated. “It feels dreadful to me that these birds are persecuted. They’re such beautiful birds, and top predators are an essential part of all healthy ecosystems. “I hope the mural will help to inspire people with a love for hen harriers and a desire to protect them. I hope people will think about the disasters that are happening unseen on driven grouse moors and write to their MPs to change the law or strengthen it, to allow prosecution of landowners for crimes enacted on their estates, and convictions with proper deterrent sentences, as happens for example in Spain for raptor persecution. Putting pressure on legislators and law enforcement bodies is probably the best that can be done.” The Hartoft Mural This epic scene was painted by Nicky and Simon Johnson, on the side of their house. Here’s what they told us: “The idea to paint a mural was sparked after looking at social media coverage of Hen Harrier Day 2019. We have an old barn with a rendered gable end wall, which faces the local grouse moor and has a public footpath and bridleway running past it. It was crying out for a mural… though neither of us had ever painted one before! “We had a shed full of half used paint pots, in many shades and colours, which were all suitable pigments for mixing with an acrylic exterior wall paint base… so we decided to go ahead and recycle them in a positive way! “We gathered some ideas and asked an artist friend for his ‘take’. Between us we came up with a plan. Then, just as we were about to begin the painting project, news came out about the illegal trapping and shooting of a buzzard at Appleton le Moors. This was swiftly followed by news that a goshawk had been illegally killed near Goathland. We were so incensed about these crimes happening, virtually on our doorstep. “As we lacked confidence in our ability to paint the planned hen harriers on the vertical wall, we decided to draw them onto the marine ply, cut them out, paint them and then fix them onto the landscape we had painted on the wall. It was scary, but we’ve done it!” Inverness Mural: Flower of Scotland If you’re driving along the A9 by the Daviot Woods, near Inverness, look out for this striking, Banksy-esque mural created by FRESHPAINT. Thistle was a young hen harrier tagged in 2019, but by Christmas that year her tag stopped transmitting without warning or explanation. Her tag’s last fix came from an area of driven grouse moor. Andrea Goddard, who arranged the mural, said: “With no physical Hen Harrier Day (Highlands) event to organise this year due to Covid-19 I wanted to develop something for the online event instead. As this year there was a strong emphasis on the creative arts I decided that creating a mural of the disappeared female hen harrier Thistle in the area where she lived was an ideal local project. “I am over the moon with everything. The mural looks amazing. Large, striking and thought-provoking, it is everything I had hoped it would be. It will, for years to come catch people’s eye as they drive past and hopefully encourage discussion about hen harriers to all who stop to visit, particularly with those who weren’t previously aware of the species or their perilous situation. Additionally I hope Highland people will feel a connection with Thistle and her plight and develop a sense of ownership of the mural over time. Situated at North Gateway café development on the A9, four miles south of Inverness, it is easily accessible to all.”

Blog Post: Hen Harrier Day goes online!

This Saturday the RSPB is supporting Online Hen Harrier Day , a packed programme of talks, mini films, competitions and artistic creations all celebrating the iconic, moorland-dwelling, sky-dancing hen harrier. The event will take place on 8 August and, like so many others, will be a fully online experience for 2020! It will be hosted by Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin, and you can find it and subscribe at: Credit Pete Morris The interest this year’s Hen Harrier Day has attracted from those eager to contribute has been utterly heartwarming. From household names to young, passionate conservationists in the making, from street artists to choirs, so many have given their time to helping put this day together. As well as being a celebration of hen harriers, the day also aims to highlight the continuing illegal persecution of these birds. Since 2004 numbers have tumbled by 24% and we all know the reason why this downward dive is so steep. There should be 300 pairs in England alone, yet each year only a handful of nests are recorded. Scientific research published in 2019 showed that 72% of the satellite-tagged hen harriers in their study were killed or very likely to have been killed on British grouse moors, and that hen harriers were 10 times more likely to die or disappear over areas of grouse moor relative to other land uses. Mark Thomas, Guy Shorrock and Ian Thomson will be speaking about their experience working in RSPB Investigations, helping to protect hen harriers and other birds of prey by gathering evidence of raptor persecution and pushing for urgent changes to secure their future. So, tune in on Saturday and help us raise our voices for hen harriers. Twitter users, keep an eye on @RSPBbirders and @HHDayUK for more. “I am delighted to be hosting Hen Harrier Day Online and look forward to enthusing audiences new and old about these iconic birds,” says Chris Packham. “I have been involved in Hen Harrier Days since the first one in the Derwent Valley in 2014, and I am delighted to see the event flourishing despite the tragedy of Covid-19. I am looking forward to a great day helping raise awareness of this wonderful bird and its terrible persecution on driven grouse moors. I will be talking to inspiring young people, great experts and many others who want to see urgent change in our uplands so that hen harriers can continue to be part of these landscapes.” Martin Harper, Conservation Director at the RSPB, said: “Nature is in crisis and the time is now to build a sustainable and nature-rich future for the benefit of us all. The problems in our uplands – from peatbog burning and flooding to raptor persecution – must be addressed urgently. Hen Harrier Day is crucial in helping bring these issues to the fore.” Dr Ruth Tingay, co-director of Wild Justice said: “Having an online event for Hen Harrier Day 2020 is testament to the determination of conservationists to see an end to the illegal killing of hen harriers and other raptors on the UK’s grouse moors. Not even a global pandemic will put us off. Wild Justice is thrilled to be supporting this event.” Alan Cranston, Chair of Hen Harrier Action, said: “The hen harrier is a symbol for our wider concerns about nature in the uplands and that is a theme that has resonated with many poets, writers and artists who will be taking part. “The moorlands of Britain are places we all should be able to enjoy, whether as visitors or locals. By hosting the event online, we hope that even more people will be able to join us this year in celebrating the UK’s hen harriers and the landscapes they bring to life.” Watch live at: And get involved on social media at: @HHDayUK

Blog Post: Happy birthday to our oldest harrier!

We’re delighted to say that one of our tagged hen harriers has turned the distinguished age of five – making her the Hen Harrier LIFE project’s oldest bird. She was fitted with a satellite transmitter as a chick in June 2015, in Perthshire, Scotland, a…

Blog Post: Apollo spotted in sunny Spain!

James Bray, our Bowland Project Officer has spotted Apollo at his wintering site. This is a second installment in the story of Apollo, a male hen harrier that was fitted with a satellite tag in 2019 as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project. Following Apollo’s post-fledging journey of almost 1,000 miles from Lancashire down to Portugal, he has been in Extremadura in central Spain since the end of October 2019. As he has been remarkably settled for the past two months I could no longer resist the temptation to travel to Spain to see if I could catch up with a bird that my team of staff and volunteers spent months monitoring in the nest in northern England. On my first full day in Extremadura I found the area that Apollo was roosting in fairly easily, but the terrain was very undulating so I thought I might struggle to see him well, if I did manage to see him at all. After spending half an hour watching and photographing a pair of great spotted cuckoos at close range I picked up a ringtail hen harrier soaring high in the sky. It then started dropping down to hunt, so with a bit of careful driving, I managed to get close to the harrier. As I took photos I could see that she wasn’t tagged and obviously wasn’t Apollo, given that he is male. Even if it wasn’t Apollo, it was still very nice to see my first hen harrier in Spain. The habitat where Apollo was spending his time (photo: James Bray) I was back the next afternoon, and knowing the area much better, and having some good overnight location fixes from Apollo’s tag, I thought I had a better-informed plan. However, I didn’t see any harriers until close to dark when two hen harriers popped up within a couple of hundred metres of me. A grey male and a ringtail, and straight away I could see that the ringtail was tagged – Apollo! I had my camera up but had lost Apollo, so I took a few photos at the grey male. Even the most surrealist of artists would blush at my attempts to claim it was a hen harrier, so I suspect that photos of a brown bird in that light would have been even more hopeless. But at least I had seen Apollo, and that evening’s rioja tasted very nice! Apollo flying over the hills of Extremadura (Photo: James Bray) Two mornings later I arrived back whilst it was still completely dark. A wait that was enlivened by calling quail and a hunting black-shouldered kite was finally rewarded as I picked up a harrier flying steadily away from where I was positioned. It was already at some height, and it was still fairly gloomy, but I was still able to see that the bird was tagged and that I was therefore watching Apollo again. I managed to get a few photos of him before I jumped into the car and drove along a road hoping to intercept him for better views. Disappointingly, I wasn’t able to relocate him, but on checking my camera I found that I had managed to get some photos showing the tag. Even if they aren’t the best photos of a harrier ever, at that moment, to me they were! Checking the map, in a straight line he is (roughly!) 1,009 miles south of his nest site in Lancashire. It would have been nice to watch him hunt a bit, but his daytime fixes show that he is hunting a few kilometres from where he roosts, and given how mobile hunting harriers can be, it would have been a needle in a haystack job to find him during the day. Overjoyed at seeing Apollo, I spent the rest of the five days that I was in Spain birding, and saw some really amazing birdlife. In the late winter the plains are covered in singing calandra larks and corn buntings, amongst which I saw a few groups of great and little bustards. The world famous Monfrague National Park provided spectacular views of griffon and black vultures as well as a pair of endemic Spanish imperial eagles. And rather fittingly, the last bird that I photographed before heading home was a grey male hen harrier. Other birds in a similar area to Apollo include corn buntings (left) and vultures (right) (Photos: James Bray) Apollo’s story has been spectacular so far and we are all intrigued as to what his next move will be. Will he stay in Spain, his head turned by the locals and the sunny weather, or will he try to return to northern England? The return journey is very long and fraught with danger, as would be his return to northern England, but it would be a dream come true to see him skydancing over the Lancashire hills. As the days lengthen over the next few weeks he is likely to make his move.

Blog Post: Apollo arrives in Portugal

James Bray, our Bowland Project Officer shares some exciting news about Apollo. This summer we had five hen harrier nests in Bowland, with a total of 22 chicks successfully fledging from these nests. RSPB staff and volunteers working on the Hen Harrier LIFE project helped to monitor and protect these young birds and their parents. We worked alongside United Utilities’ tenants, who helped by carrying out some of the diversionary feeding at the nest where Apollo fledged. Each day was nerve wracking but after two long months we were really pleased to see the chicks start to fledge, and just before they did, we fitted some of them with satellite tags so we could monitor where they went. We were not prepared for what we would see next as Apollo set off on a 1,000 mile journey! Apollo as a chick Like many young hen harriers, Apollo spent his first three months of life staying close to where he had fledged from his nest on the United Utilities Bowland estate in August 2019. I managed to catch sight of him one memorable afternoon in early October and was incredibly lucky to watch him for over fifteen minutes as he played in the wind with two of Bowland’s other young males. Soon afterwards Apollo headed south, spending one night in the west Pennines then a week in the hills of mid Wales up until 19 October. We might have expected him to stay in this area for longer, but the very next day on 20 October his tag sent signals from Exmoor in Devon. He was not finished there though. On the 21 October he crossed the English Channel and spent the night in Brittany, not too far from where one of his mother’s chicks from another brood in 2018 had spent the winter. Just when we thought he couldn’t get any more adventurous, Apollo proved us wrong. We were all astounded when we looked at the data from his tag on 22 October, as it showed that he was still heading south, this time half-way across the Bay of Biscay. Messages continued to be transmitted by his tag and we had a very nervous 24 hours before we saw that Apollo had successfully completed the crossing and was now in northern Spain. The distance in a straight line from Brittany to where he made land in Spain is over 400 miles and he completed this journey, with the help of a light northerly wind, in less than a day. This is a spectacular piece of flying for a bird that was only a few months old on his first major outing. Apollo spent a bit of time in northern Spain and by 26 October he continued his journey south and became the first of our tagged harriers to reach Portugal. By the end of October, he moved slightly east again and had clearly found somewhere that he liked as he has remained fairly settled in Extremadura in central Spain since then. This is an area that many British birders know well as it holds a wealth of very exciting wildlife, including montagu’s harriers in the spring and summer. We are continuing to monitor the data coming in from Apollo’s tag, and we’re excited to see whether this remarkable bird will return to his native Bowland for the summer and if we might have a chance to see him sky-dancing above our hills again. A map of Apollo’s journey from Lancashire to Portugal This story shows just how strong and resilient these birds can be, venturing into new territories at a very young age. However, our project team, and I’m sure many of you reading this, are all too aware of what fate could await Apollo if he does return home. The use of satellite tagging technology to track movements of individuals provides powerful information to better understand species and their ecology, which can then inform conservation management. Think of the non-stop globe-traversing flights of bar-tailed godwits, or the revelations of the lives and journeys of British-breeding common cuckoos. Satellite-tags fitted to hen harriers by the Hen Harrier LIFE project team provided information on the areas that these birds use, and this information will be vital in planning habitat management work to provide suitable habitat for hen harriers in both the breeding season and in winter. However, tagging also allows us to identify the fates of our birds and shows that hen harrier continue to be killed illegally, most recently with the loss of Mary who was found poisoned in the Republic of Ireland. Apollo’s amazing journey reminds us how much we’d be missing if this killing continues. A positive way of working in the uplands is possible, as the success in Bowland last year demonstrates. We are continuing to monitor the data coming in from Apollo’s tag, and we’re excited to see whether this remarkable bird will return to his native Bowland for the summer and if we might have a chance to see him skydancing above our hills again. For now, we hope that Apollo continues to enjoy his winter in the Spanish sunshine.

Comment on Rare hen harrier illegally poisoned in Ireland

If it was not for the fact that Hen Harriers manage to breed on the Scottish islands, it would be extinct as a UK species. The RSPB places many satellite tags on nestlings every year. Few live to manage to breed. Science has placed the issue directly a…

Blog Post: Rare hen harrier illegally poisoned in Ireland

The RSPB issued the following press release on 30 January 2020: The female bird, named Mary, had been fitted with a satellite tracking device. The bird’s body was found dead beside a pigeon and meat baits laced with poison. Conservationists unite in co…

Comment on Hope for hen harriers? Reflections on 2019

Thanks for this update. I do try to keep a record of what you publish, but the information on Rain, Xena, Marvel and Angharad were new to me. I’d like to add my thanks and I’m sure that of many other members to those who spend so much of their time monitoring these birds. I do wish that we had more information from Natural England, who also tag birds, but publish little, and nothing since the the 3 birds Mabel, Tom and Barney vanished in 2018.

Blog Post: Hope for hen harriers? Reflections on 2019

As we reach the end of 2019, Hen Harrier LIFE Project Manager, Dr. Cathleen Thomas, looks back over the year. Those of you that regularly follow the fates of hen harriers in the UK will know that it’s a real roller coaster of a journey, and 2019 has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs for our Hen Harrier LIFE project team. We started the year with the suspicious disappearance of one of our longest lived birds, and a favourite of the project team, DeeCee. We tagged DeeCee on a nest in Perthshire in 2016 and we’d followed her life closely. Her tag suddenly stopped transmitting near the border of Angus and Aberdeenshire on 28 January 2019. A follow up search revealed no sign of the bird or her tag, and neither have been seen or heard from since. Earlier in DeeCee’s life, we were really pleased to see her successfully raise a brood of chicks in 2017 and you may remember we tagged two of her offspring, named Sirius and Skylar. Sadly, the devastating disappearance of DeeCee was quickly followed by the suspicious disappearance of her daughter Skylar in South Lanarkshire on 7 February 2019, resulting in the end of DeeCee’s blood line. All that time and effort gone into raising chicks and trying to establish the next generations of hen harriers gone within a week. (Top) DeeCee on the nest as a chick in 2016 (Bottom) Her daughter Skylar on the nest in 2017 We then lost more birds from the class of 2018. Two hen harriers died in unknown circumstances, one in Scotland and one in France. Despite ground searches being made, we could not locate the birds or their tags. In both these cases the tags continued to transmit after the birds’ deaths so whilst we do not know exactly what happened to them, we do not think there was anything suspicious about their deaths at this time. We reported the suspicious disappearance of Vulcan on 16 th January 2019 near Calstone Wellington in Wiltshire in an area that was a heavily-managed pheasant and partridge shoot. Vulcan and his tag have not been seen or heard from since. In April, we lost another bird in France to natural causes, closely followed by Marci and Rain whose tags suddenly stopped transmitting in suspicious circumstances. Marci disappeared on 22 April 2019 and was last recorded in west Aberdeenshire in an area managed intensively for driven grouse shooting. Rain disappeared over a grouse moor on 26 April 2019 in Nairnshire. Neither Marci nor Rain were located during searches and they have not been seen or heard from since. Just as we started to head into the breeding season for 2019, enjoying the sights of hen harriers skydancing, pairing up and nest building, we were devastated to discover two birds were victims of crimes. River was tagged in Lancashire in 2018. We last heard from her tag in November 2018, in North Yorkshire on a driven grouse moor between Colsterdale and Nidderdale. RSPB Investigations and North Yorkshire Police searched the area but there was no sign of the bird or her tag. In April 2019 the tag battery recharged and the team were able to locate her – she was found dead on Ilton Moor and subsequent investigations revealed her body contained two pieces of lead shot from a shot gun. Rannoch was tagged in Perthshire in 2017. We last heard from her tag in November 2018, when she stopped moving in an area of moorland between Aberfeldy and Crieff. Despite two ground searches we hadn’t been able to recover her body or her tag. In May 2019 the tag battery recharged in the spring sunlight and transmitted more accurate location data, allowing the team to locate her. The post mortem report from SRUC veterinary laboratory said: “The bird was trapped by the left leg in a spring trap at time of death. Death will have been due to a combination of shock and blood loss if it died quickly or to exposure and dehydration/starvation if it died slowly. Either way the bird will have experienced significant unnecessary suffering.” With only 20% of our hen harrier population remaining, every single illegal death is absolutely devastating for the population – it’s not just Rannoch and River’s loss that we mourn, but all the future chicks they could have raised. (Top) Rannoch found dead in a spring trap (Bottom) River recovered with two pieces of shot in her body Over the summer, the project team worked hard to monitor and protect this year’s nests. Thanks to the fantastic partnership working with landowners, agents and managers, raptor workers and statutory bodies across the British Isles, we monitored over 30 nests across England, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Scotland we monitored a range of nests and observed reasons for failure, this year including predation, disturbance and bad weather. In England it was a similar picture with continuous days of wet weather just as chicks would have been getting ready to fledge the nest. Hen harriers nest on the ground so waterlogging of nests amongst the heather can cause the chicks to become cold and die of hyperthermia. We were proud to be involved in protecting nine nests across England fledging 33 chicks. You’ll probably know that we should have a breeding population of around 320 pairs of hen harrier in England, based on estimates of food and habitat availability, so whilst these nests represent just under 3% of this total, with the perilous position of our English population, I hope you can understand why every single bird that successfully fledges from its nest is something to celebrate. Our team in Bowland worked round the clock to protect five nests there (an increase of two from 2018), resulting in all 22 chicks that hatched fledging from their nests about a month later. Northumberland continued to be a stronghold for hen harriers for the fifth year running, with three successful nests fledging nine chicks. We were also pleased to see repeat nesting success on the National Trust’s High Peak Moor, with one nest. We tagged over 30 hen harriers during the summer of 2019, and the bulk of this work was carried out by just one of our taggers, showing that there are no bounds to how dedicated people are in protecting this species. Once the hard work of coordinating monitoring, protection and tagging was over, we waited to see how our class of 2019 would fare. The autumn of 2018 was a really difficult time, with nine tagged birds disappearing in suspicious circumstances in a 12 week period. However, 2019 has so far proved to be a little different. We recently reported on the suspicious disappearances of Ada , Thistle and Romario , whose tags suddenly stopped working near Allendale, in east Sutherland and between Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey, the latter two over grouse moors. We also reported on the discovery of the body of another untagged hen harrier on a grouse moor near the village of Wanlockhead in Scotland, whose post mortem revealed it had been shot. We also lost birds in natural circumstances, including Xena tagged in the Peak District, Marvel tagged at NTS Mar Lodge and Angharad tagged in Conwy who all died of natural causes. All in all, it feels like it’s been a tough year for hen harriers. There were a lot of confirmed or suspected criminal acts against the birds at the start of the year, and we fear for how the class of 2019 will fare. Although the LIFE-funded portion of our Hen Harrier programme will finish on 31 st December, we will continue our hen harrier work, including monitoring our tagged birds. Watch this space for more updates in the New Year!

Blog Post: One hen harrier found dead and tagged birds Thistle and Romario disappear in suspicious circumstances

The RSPB is appealing for information following the discovery of the body of a hen harrier found to have been shot and the suspicious disappearances of two young satellite tagged hen harriers. A member of the public found the dead female bird on a grou…