Category: RSPB Skydancer Project

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…

Blog Post: Hen harrier Ada disappears

Today, Northumbria Police and the RSPB have issued an appeal for information following the sudden disappearance of yet another satellite tagged hen harrier, a female bird known as Ada. Ada being tagged as a chick this summer Ada hatched on a nest on th…

Blog Post: RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE Report

We have now released our RSPB Hen Harrier LIFE project report. The report provides more information about the project, including outlining the existing threats to hen harriers, what we have done so far to address them, our major achievements over the past 5.5 years, and our recommendations for the future. The Hen Harrier LIFE project has been a resounding success – we’ve protected over 100 nests and 150 winter roosts, tagged over 100 birds, catalogued 328 bird crime incidents, shown how moorlands can be managed sustainably, talked about the issues facing hen harriers with nearly 13,000 people and raised awareness of this beautiful bird. The success of the project has been in the partnership work across Scotland, England, Wales, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, and France. We have collaborated with landowners and managers, conservation organisations, the police, community groups and people who monitor and protect birds of prey. We would like to say a particular thank you to the Northern England Raptor Forum and Scottish Raptor Study Group, whose members have donated thousands of hours of their own time to help us to protect and monitor hen harriers on the hills. The key finding of this project is that the main factor limiting the recovery of the hen harrier population continues to be illegal killing associated with management of moorlands for driven grouse shooting. These findings add to an overwhelming body of independent scientific evidence that shows illegal killing is prevalent across the UK. Self-regulation of the UK’s grouse moors has failed. We recommend a licensing system is implemented, underpinned by effective monitoring and enforcement, which would hold grouse moor owners to account to show they are managing their land sustainably and legally. Sanctions imposed by magistrates for wildlife crime are currently inadequate and do not act as a deterrent to those who would commit wildlife crimes. We would like to see stronger sentences imposed across the UK, and for the introduction of a vicarious liability legislation across the UK, as it is currently only in place in Scotland. It is vital that we continue to engage communities who live and work in the uplands, and work in partnership with local police forces to encourage the public to recognise, record and report wildlife crimes to the RSPB Investigations team, or to their local police force. We also need joined-up conservation action on the ground, through development of a coordinated European Species Action Plan, to understand the reasons for the hen harrier population decline across this wider range and take action to address key threats. There is much still to do, and although the Hen Harrier LIFE project is coming to an end, the RSPB will continue to work hard to secure a better future for hen harriers. We will be making sure our project findings reach those in a position to take action to protect hen harriers and ensure that our uplands are managed legally and sustainably, for the benefit of everyone. Read the report below to find out more. You can also help us by sharing this report with as many people as you can – the more people that know about the problems facing our hen harriers, the louder our voice to call for the changes they need.