Tag: hen harrier

Blog Post: The Hen Harrier Hotline is open!

As spring arrives we’re asking you to keep your eyes to the skies and you may even spot some skydancing! Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas tells us how you can help us to protect hen harriers. For anyone new to the blog, hen harriers are a bird of prey that breed in the uplands, principally on hills with heather moorland. They are the UK’s most threatened bird of prey and on the brink of extinction as breeding bird in England, with just 9 successful nests in the whole of England in 2018 despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 pairs. So, the population size is a very long way from where it should be for a healthy, self-sustaining population. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that the main reason for the decline of our hen harriers is illegal killing by criminals in areas associated with intensive management of moorlands for grouse shooting. Just two weeks ago, the English government contributed to published research that found hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or disappear in areas of grouse moor, relative to areas with no grouse moor. This paper also found that 72% of their tagged birds were either definitely, or very likely to have been, illegally killed on grouse moors. Here at the RSPB, the staff working on our Hen Harrier LIFE project carry out direct conservation action on the ground to protect and monitor nests. We work alongside local raptor workers, including those that are part of the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG). To be able to protect the birds we need to know where they are and that’s why we’re asking for your help. As the weather is slowly warming up, the birds are becoming more visible as they start long journeys moving away from their winter roosting grounds and towards their summer breeding grounds. They will be moving into areas of heather moorlands in places like the North Pennines and the Forest of Bowland. Hen harrier are birds of prey with strong talons and a curved beak. They are a medium-sized bird of prey, smaller than an eagle and similar in size to a buzzard. Female hen harriers have brown and white feathers that camouflage them when they nest on the ground amongst the heather. They have horizontal stripes on their tails and a patch of white just above it. Males are slightly smaller and ash grey with black wing tips. Both have a round, owl-like face and a wingspan of just under a metre. A female hen harrier with mottled brown feathers and a barred tail (photo by Steve Knell, RSPB-IMAGES) In the spring, the male hen harrier performs a spectacular courtship display to attract a female, known as skydancing. The bird sweeps and somersaults, climbing high in the air before plunging to the ground and then pulling up just before he hits it! He twists and turns, all to impress the female and it should be a common sight on our hills and moorland in the spring. A grey male hen harrier (photo by Andy Hay, RSPB-IMAGES) If anyone spots a hen harrier, skydancing or otherwise, please make a note of the date, time and location with a 6-figure grid reference if possible. A description of what the bird was doing is also helpful. Sightings can be reported to henharriers@rspb.org.uk or you can call us on 0845 460 0121. Please help us to keep these birds safe this summer.

Bold bitterns and dapper dabblers

Despite a mix of weather, from cold snaps to milder, wetter conditions here at Leighton Moss and Morecambe Bay. wildlife sightings of some of our specialties remain excellent. The chilly snaps often freeze the edges of the reedbed, so we can expect (and hope) for great sightings from otters, water rails and bitterns.

Firstly, after a few days of absence, the great grey shrike reappeared in its favoured spot close to the Lower Hide on Tuesday 4 December. Perhaps my current favourite bird, the aptly-nicknamed ‘butcher bird’ is a rare visitor and arguably, worth the cold and rain to see! Just keep in mind that this bird does like to move and can be absent for long periods of time, it is a lucky dip (not to be confused with a birder’s dip!) when spotting this particular species.

The bitterns continue to show brilliantly, for the past week we have had daily sightings. These are predominantly from the Causeway (some lucky visitors had four sightings in a day!) and Lower hides but there have also been irregular sightings of bittern from Lilian’s Hide. It is a delight to watch the bitterns foraging the edges of the reedbed and also to see them in flight, their wing shape is unmistakable.

Bittern in flight. Photo credit: John Bridges

Visitors have also been treated to great sights of foraging water rail from Causeway, Grisedale and Lilian’s hide. With another forecast cold snap, perhaps we shall see slightly bolder behaviour from this otherwise often elusive species. A great white egret has also been present on the reserve, often seen from Lower, Lilian’s and Grisedale hides. 

The marsh harriers have continued to provide excellent sightings, coasting over the reedbed with all the confidence a bird of prey of their calibre should exude. Marsh harriers often stir up trouble at the Causeway Pool (the panicked waterfowl are still a great spectacle when alighting the water) but sightings have been equally good from Lilian’s and Grisedale hides. Look out for a pristine male, two juveniles and two females.

Male Marsh Harrier. Photo credit: Alan Saunders.

Speaking of harriers, on Thursday 29 November we had a hen harrier (ringtail) hunting around the reserve. Interestingly, this raptor remained on the reserve for a couple of days before moving on, often we are only lucky enough to get brief visits of hen harriers at Leighton Moss.

There are good numbers of wildfowl on the reserve, most notably, a pochard was reported from Lower Hide on Tuesday 27 November and this pool is home to small numbers of goldeneye and tufted ducks that can be sighted daily. The drakes are in their best plumage right now, with lovely sights of pintail, wigeon, teal, shoveler and gadwall

The Allen and Eric Morecambe pools are also worth visiting with a variety of waders such as redshank, greenshank, lapwings, black tailed godwits,and ‘sawbills’ on show; goosanders and red-breasted mergansers. The kingfisher is also showing very well, often with a dazzling flash of teal and orange skimming the pool surface before sitting on their regular posts.

Our smaller feathered friends are showing equally well, the bird feeder to the entrance of the centre is a prime place to watch bullfinches and marsh tits as well as nuthatches, chaffinches and great, blue and coal tits.

Non-avian activity includes regular sightings of our resident otters down at the Causeway Pool and our largest mammal, the red deer can be sighted from the Grisedale Hide and the Skytower. 

We are always at the whim of the weather, so if you plan on visiting Leighton Moss do wrap up warm as it can get chilly in the hides. Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who attended our Christmas Market on Sunday 2 December and supported our local businesses. Despite the weather, the event was hailed a success with visitors and vendors alike enjoying themselves.

Until next time! Naomi.
Visitor Experience Intern.


As a change from local bird news I searched the Internet and also talked to local contacts about what’s going on in the wider world of birds. 
So today and below are just a couple of snippets I found. 
From The Lancashire and Westmoreland Gazette 1st August 2017 – “The Chairman of The British Upland Management Society (BUMS), multi-millionaire, landowner Sir Henry Spindley-Legge welcomed the news that three pairs of Hen Harriers successfully bred in England this year.” 
“My keepers are tremendously proud of their achievement this year in almost maintaining the 2016 total of four pairs of Hen Harriers in the 50,000 square miles of upland England. For their hard and often unappreciated work that led to this wonderful outcome, each will receive a large pay bonus very soon. These men spent night & day and many long hours in the uplands to ensure that all our birds of prey were accounted for. Their newly issued hi-tech night-time goggles and digital equipment allowed them unrivalled views and close inspection of nesting Peregrines, Merlins, Goshawks and Hen Harriers at their overnight roosts and daytime haunts. Unfortunately the early find of the first Red Kite nest in our area could not be followed up due to inclement Spring weather when the kites decided to head back to warmer climes.” 
“Sad to say that accidents do happen and whilst patrolling on a particularly cold and windswept dawn when no one else was around, our most experienced keeper Olly Winchester tripped over a large boulder and accidentally discharged his shotgun in the direction of a sitting Peregrine. Needless to say, Olly was distraught and despite his best efforts to revive the bird with chest compression and then placing the expiring creature under a warming clump of thick heather, the poor thing died.” 
“When the RSPB later informed us that the incident had been captured on their CCTV, and despite ours and Olly best efforts to explain, he was in the frame. Nevertheless I explained to Olly that unfortunately we had to quickly find a replacement keeper but that upon Olly’s release from Pentonville his bonus will still be paid and he will have the responsibility of mucking out the dog kennels.” 
Hen Harrier – Graham Catley – Pewit Blogspot
But now from local contacts come reports of a new bird sightings pager company, Speedbird at speedbird.org. Their stirring motto? “Our Message Is Your Motivation”. 
The company, under the direction of its birder-founder Les Vane is offering a package to rival, and in most cases beat, those of established pager companies, but from a much user friendly and acceptable starting point of £99 a year. 
Les claims that his bargain pager service is “the ultimate tool” for birders with live news of over 100,000 sightings per year, updated on a constant 24 hour, 7 day basis by his team of experienced but retired twitchers now looking to augment their somewhat depleted nest eggs. 
Subscribers will have access to the Speedbird web page and Smartphone coverage offering live stream videos of birds and twitches as they happen. Les says “In this way birders can not only check up on the bird in real time but also on the birders who are there, or more importantly, birders who are not there.” 
Speedbird pager
There will be a large Photo Gallery to share photos, but as Les explains, “This will be restricted to 50 photos per rarity per person and just 1000 pictures per rarity overall, as our systems may be unable to cope with so much digidata”. He adds mischievously, “and in any case when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all”. 
Les described how a “Previous Records fully searchable database” will include all accepted rarities in Britain and Ireland, with colour maps, stats, photos, and an important novel feature, the highly important name(s) of those credited with the find. 
He also claimed his pager to be “unhackable” to ensure there will be no false records from rival twitchers posting messages that send birders in the wrong direction to often far flung places in search of birds that don’t exist. A valuable feature Les. 
There are worthwhile links from Speedbird.org. Users can click onto Car Hire firms, a list of B&Bs located all over the UK, and even private hire boats and planes based at local ports and airports. In addition to these special offers Les has even signed up many petrol stations to give discounts to Speedbirders.
Another Bird Blog normally steers clear of recommending products and services to its readers but in this case I will make an exception. Les is offering a free 6 month trial to the first one hundred subscribers so come on folks, give Les a go. 
After all, another pager service must be a good thing and we can never have too much news of rare birds can we?