Blogger: Alex Cooper, Conservation Officer
It’s not often you get the opportunity to see Britain’s rarest bird of prey. So when some friends said they were going to watch a pair near where they lived and asked if I wanted to come along I jumped at the opportunity.
Part of the reason Montagu’s harriers have never been common in the UK is because they are on the northern edge of their range. Along with other birds of prey they were persecuted in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. Their population is also thought to have declined during the 1950s due to the widespread use of organochloride pesticides, such as DDT. Their rarity, with only a few pairs in the UK, has made them a target for egg collectors.
I will not pretend I was able to tell the difference between Montagu’s and Hen harriers, but luckily I was with someone who could.
As they are so rare it felt rather like being on an undercover operation. In order to protect them from egg collectors their nesting locations have to be kept secret. So when a passer-by asked us ‘if there was any interesting birds around’ we replied casually ‘ no not much at this time of year’. When we arrived there was initially a bit of shock because the field where the birds were meant to be was being ploughed. However, to our relief when we got closer we realised that two blocks had been left uncut, and we assumed an agreement had been reached with the farmer to leave these because this was the location of the nest site. Nesting in cereal crops makes montagu’s particularly vulnerable to toxic sprays and harvesting machinery.
It was fantastic to watch the female harriers gliding gracefully across the fields and then landing on a fence post and perching. Getting my ID skills in I noticed that they do look a bit smaller than Hen harriers. The females are brown with a whitish rump and later when we saw the male there was a noticeable difference in colour. It was pale grey with black wing bars and wing tips and had a grey rump.
Male Montagu's harrier
Female Montagu's harrier
So as not to confuse matters this is a Marsh harrier
Overall it was an amazing day sat in the sunshine and I felt extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to see such a spectacular member of the Great British wildlife. I would highly recommend getting outdoors this week, enjoying a walk in the countryside and seeing what you can find.
Images by Mike Langman (rspb images) and photo by Andy Hay