Sky dancing last week.
Buzzard, kestrel… or hen harrier? It’s that time of year when we invite you all to look out for hen harriers as they return to their breeding grounds. If you think you’ve seen a hen harrier, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org A female hen harrier, credit Tim Jones Hen harriers are medium-sized birds of prey, similar to a buzzard but with a slightly slimmer appearance, with long wings and a long tail. Female and young hen harriers are speckled brown and cream with horizontal stripes on their tails. The most striking feature is the patch of white at their rump. Males are slightly smaller and pale grey with black wingtips. Both have a round, owl-like face. As the weather warms up, these birds are becoming more visible as they make their long journeys away from their winter roosting grounds and up to the moors to breed. Hen harriers nest on the ground amongst heather or soft rush in the uplands, in places like the North Pennines, Yorkshire Dales and the Forest of Bowland. You maybe even lucky enough to encounter their skydancing display, a dizzying aerial show of rolls and dives, performed by either the male and female to mark their territory and demonstrate their vigour. Hen harriers are the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey and on the brink of extinction as breeding bird in England. There were only 19 successful nests in England in 2020, though there is food and habitat to support over 300 hen harrier pairs. A male hen harrier, credit Jack Ashton-Booth The RSPB’s Jack Ashton-Booth said : “We are calling on the Great British public to email our Hen Harrier Hotline if they believe they’ve seen a hen harrier. This helps us build a picture of where these birds are. Please contact us if you see them in England, Wales or Scotland. We welcome any sightings and appreciate your time. “Hen harriers are beautiful and elusive raptors and, unlike peregrines and kestrels, they are rarely seen in urban environments. So if it’s perched on your fence, it’s probably a sparrowhawk, if it’s in a tree by the roadside, it’s probably a kestrel or a buzzard… but if it’s over rough pasture or moorland, and matches the description above, then you might have seen a hen harrier. “Sadly hen harriers are a long way from reaching a healthy, self-sustaining population, and this is largely down to persecution by humans. Particularly where land is managed for the purpose of driven grouse shooting, natural predators like hen harriers can be viewed as pests and, despite being legally protected, the shooting, trapping and poisoning of hen harriers is a serious and ongoing problem.” If you think you’ve seen a hen harrier, please email: email@example.com Please include the date, time, location/grid reference and a description of the bird.
Amazing mum Wendy is one of the RSPB’s oldest tagged hen harriers and has raised two broods already in the past two years. Will she have a third in 2021? Wendy in flight. Photo by Will Hayward As the hen harrier breeding season approaches, RSPB scientists are watching the skies for the return of one of their oldest satellite-tagged hen harriers, who has nested on the West Coast of Scotland every year since she hatched. Wendy was tagged in 2016 at HM Naval Base Clyde’s Coulport Site as part of the RSPB’s EU LIFE+ project. She was one of two chicks in the nest. Her brother Donald, who was also tagged, risked a long flight to France but sadly did not survive the journey. Wendy however stayed much closer to home and has continued to do so throughout her life, successfully raising two broods herself since then. Hen harriers are red-listed and in recent decades their population has declined in the UK, largely due to human persecution. Scotland is a traditional stronghold for these elegant and agile hunters – known for their beautiful ‘skydancing’ courtship display – yet even here their numbers are falling and illegal killing sadly continues. Over 100 hen harriers were tagged as part of the five-year LIFE project, but most female birds have died or vanished – often on or near driven grouse moors – before reaching breeding age. Satellite tag data shows that Wendy favours spending her winters on Mull, then heading back to the mainland each summer to nest. The first nest site she chose, near Loch Fyne, was unsuccessful. The following year she nested in Perthshire but was unlucky again. Tail feathers were found on her nest, and it was initially feared that a fox had taken both Wendy and her eggs. However it turned out Wendy had managed to escape the attack, and she was recorded soon after on the Argyll coast. However in 2019 Wendy nested in Argyll and this time she raised three chicks, before heading back to her winter home on Mull. Wendy returned to nest in Argyll again last year and raised another brood: this time three females and two males. One of these was Bathsheba, who was tagged just like her mother, and is also being tracked by the RSPB. Bathsheba spent her first year after leaving the nest exploring south, around Dumfries and Galloway, then north into the Highlands. She has also opted to spend her winters on Mull. It’s rare to have a tagged mother and daughter both still alive, and it’s hoped Bathsheba will become a mum herself for the first time this summer. Three of Wendy’s brood in 2019 (Bathsheba in the middle) Wendy’s 2020 brood enjoying a breakfast of meadow pipits! Photo by David Jardine In the last two weeks, we have herd that Wendy has left Mull and looks to be heading back to her nest site, where the tagging team are hopeful she will nest for a third time this spring. Jenni Burrell, Investigations Intelligence Officer at the RSPB, has been monitoring Wendy closely these past five years. Says Jenni: “Wendy is one of our oldest tagged hen harriers. She hatched in 2016 and is a Scottish bird through and through, having stayed true to the West Highlands all her life. She has raised two broods and we’re hopeful she’ll be back at the same site once again to raise another family this spring. “It’s been fascinating to watch her movements and see her raise young of her own. She has survived the gauntlet of predation and illegal persecution so far, and we’ve got everything crossed that she’ll have another successful summer in 2021.” MOD Police Inspector John Simpson added: “The MOD Police Wildlife Crime Officers were delighted to be part of this initiative and I am pleased to see Wendy is doing so well. The Defence landholding on the Clyde is a haven for this protected species and we will continue to ensure they thrive.” Have you seen a hen harrier? If you see a hen harrier, we’d love to know! Males are silver with black wingtips and a white rump; females are mottled brown and cream with a long, barred tail. Please email the hen harrier hotline at: firstname.lastname@example.org . If possible, include time, date, location and photo or description. Thank you. Wendy’s mate. Photo by David Jardine
the disappeared fledged chick and missing tag, is this perceived to be persecution?
Hi, the statement ‘ And none of the tagged RSPB birds that travelled to Spain made it back to the UK.’ dose this mean they all died ‘ presumed dead or have remained in Spain?
By James Bray and Niall Owen For several years now, satellite tags have been providing the RSPB with vital – and often surprising – data on how and where hen harriers live. This is the story of two remarkable hen harriers, Bomber from Wales and Apollo from Lancashire, who have reset our expectations of what these remarkable birds can do. Apollo being tagged as a youngster in 2019 as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE project Initially we believed that most of our tagged hen harriers stayed in the British uplands all year-round. However, it’s become clear that around 10% of birds cross the English Channel for the winter, some bound for France and a few for Spain. And none of the tagged RSPB birds that travelled to Spain made it back to the UK. Meet Apollo. Apollo fledged from the United Utilities Bowland estate in Lancashire in 2019. The RSPB works in partnership with United Utilities, their farming and shooting tenants, and the AONB, to protect close to a third of England’s hen harrier breeding population. After leaving Bowland, this Lancashire-born male flew almost 1000 miles to Portugal, then on to Extremadura in Spain – a landscape of steppes, forest and farming west of Madrid, and one of the most biodiverse places in Europe. Our last blog had us wondering whether he would return to the UK to breed. By April 2020, all other Bowland birds had returned, so our expectations for Apollo were low. But late in April, incredibly, he left his Spanish wintering ground and made the long, perilous journey north. Apollo flew across the Bay of Biscay, the sea crossing taking him two days. He then flew straight through northern France and was soon making his way through the Welsh hills, where he spent a few days making short jumps (possibly feeding, possibly looking for a mate). On 15 May 2020 he arrived back in Bowland and settled down to breed with a young female just a couple of miles from where he hatched. Apollo’s route The pair nested on a private estate; to our knowledge the first nest on a private estate for ten years. It was great to see them welcomed by the estate and this nest will hopefully be the start of the species recolonising areas of Bowland where they haven’t been breeding for a long time. Apollo brought in plenty of food in but only one chick fledged. Disappointingly, this chick’s satellite tag signal disappeared near the nest not long after fledging. Neither tag nor bird were found. Come October 2020, Apollo was on the move again. Incredibly, he headed in a dead-straight line back to Extremadura, and to the exact-same place that he spent last winter. Bomber in flight (photo by Niall Owen) This is Bomber. Named for her ring number (B2) and sheer size, she fledged from the Migneint, Snowdonia in July 2019, and in October began the first leg of an epic round-trip. Her tag allowed us to track her as she crossed the Channel and continued south, settling in the Navarra region of northern Spain for the winter. This was even more remarkable, because most female hen harriers tend not to wander far from where they hatched. In spring 2020, Bomber embarked on her return journey home, arriving to north Wales on 9 May 2020, already some way into the typical breeding cycle of hen harriers. She quickly established herself in an area of the Carneddau range, around 25 miles from her natal site. Not all hen harriers breed in their first year, however Bomber paired up with an adult male, but sadly none of their chicks fledged. Bomber appeared to spend the autumn bettering her hunting skills, and on 3 November – a month later than in 2019 – she flew south and was back in her winter territory by the 18 th . She had covered almost 1000 miles in just over two weeks. Winter-site fidelity has been shown in a number of bird species, but hen harriers have a reputation for wandering, making the stories of Apollo and Bomber absolutely fascinating – and something we would never have known were it not for satellite tagging. By contrast, Apollo’s brother Dynamo has not gone further than 50 miles from Bowland over the course of his life! The longer these birds live, the more amazing stories they tell us. It looks like, at the moment, our tagged hen harriers are surviving longer than before which is, of course, a very welcome development. The UK hen harrier population has declined in recent decades, largely due to human persecution, making every returning hen harrier a beacon of hope for the future. We’re very excited by what spring 2021 may bring and desperately hope that both Apollo and Bomber make it back to Britain to nest again and safely rear a brood. Hopefully, a year older and wiser, these brilliant birds will go on to raise a family and send a new intrepid generation out into the world. Bomber’s route
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.”
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: www.youtube.com/HenHarrierDayUK 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: www.youtube.com/HenHarrierDayUK And get involved on social media at: @HHDayUK
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…
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.