Our hen harriers have given us much to puzzle over in the last few weeks. There is a temptation to speculate on what is not happening, which can be a head-spinning exercise. Picking up on the clues right in front of us is more telling. In particular, the behaviour of the male bird is significant.
The vigour of his skydances, his height and the frequency of displays can all help to make sense of the bigger picture. For instance, if there is no female in the immediate area, he may dance higher in the sky.
So what's our boy up to?
He hunts in the wider area over rough grassland and heather moorland, checking in every few hours with a fly-by and, on a number of occasions, a skydance. His skydancing has been fairly energetic at times which is a good sign. What does all this mean? Well, clearly this area is his patch and he considers it a pretty fine place for nesting - which it is. He is very much king of the castle here. Of course, there is no better location from which to monitor one's land than from the highest point. There he will sit in the sun and rain for an hour or two, just watching.
Though the drama of his dance is affected by the proximity of a female and/or the presence of another male, a blustery day can help transform a lazy skydance into something more thrilling. Under such conditions, he can really make a spectacle of himself, which is of course the point.
Last Sunday afternoon the wind got up and our male bird took lift out of the heather. The updraft pulled him from the vegetation and he was soon traversing the skyline in great tumbling loops. The increased velocity and added spin on the turn was impressive, and he seemed to know it!
I only hope his performance wasn't wasted on just me!
Easter Sunday: Hot and sunny, skylarks singing, early swallows flitting through the heather valley, buzzards circling, kestrels suspended above forest clearings, peregrines happily on eggs. And the harriers? It was as if they had never been here. No shrieking for food from the female and no sign of Mister.
Easter Monday: Male harrier back on site, skydancing urgently. Speculation mounts. Is our female now incubating a full clutch and the male is trying to woo a second mate?
Just when we needed fine whether to monitor the site closely, thick fog rolls in and doesn’t budge for two days. Visibility is thirty metres, fifty when a gust of wind momentarily clears the air. We sit in the fog and listen. And listen. But don’t hear anything.
UpdateIt has been a turbulent and anxious time on the North Tynedale site over the past few weeks. I’ve been working flat out with some dedicated volunteer wardens, keeping a close eye on the hen harriers and trying to interpret their behaviour and predict their next moves...Where do I begin?Rewind to 17 March. As noted in a previous blog, this was when our male hen harrier began skydancing. A few days later he successfully pulled in a mate. She even enjoyed a few skydances herself and generally things were getting pretty steamy between the pair. Since the beginning of April, they have been copulating, and nest building seemed imminent.Nesting
Our male hen harrier was encouraging the female by picking up sprigs of heather and randomly dropping them. He also tried to lead her into his preferred nesting spot. She mostly ignored him or course. Perhaps she didn't like the view.This is a critical time because when the female hen harrier is ready, she can very quickly build a nest and lay her first egg. Last year she did this all within an afternoon.Now, supposing this happens out of view of our observation points, or, say, I am stranded in the Northumberland countryside next to a broken down car (frustrating, but as far as 'places to wait for the AA' go, a sunny field full of curlews and lapwings was not bad). Well, the point is, it would be easy to miss our girl setting up home.In the run up to Easter weekend, it looked as if our birds may have had a nest. The female was springing out of the heather when the male returned with prey, and there was a lot of activity centred on one area of the site.Our female hen harrier is very vocal and she has been calling incessantly to the male until he passes her (in mid-flight) the vole or meadow pipit he's just caught. Her begging calls are urgent - particularly so when he returns from a hunt empty handed (taloned?). He gets an ear load off her then.So it was all looking pretty good. The team of nest watchers were mobilised and we were more or less ready. CCTV cameras, observation unit and flasks of tea at the ready.It was, you might say, a perfect example of how a hen harrier courts and breeds.And then, on Easter Sunday, it all went very quiet on the North Tynedale moors...
Hurrah! Brilliant, super, smashing, marvellous, … (add you own superlative here). No sooner than I publish a new post, we have our first confirmed hen harrier nest reported by fieldworkers on the UU estate. As far as I’m aware, this is the first hen harrier nest in England this year. Let’s hope for plenty more over the next few weeks.