Thirty years ago I started working for the RSPB on a six month upland bird surveying contract – with the additional challenge of helping to protect England’s only regular nesting hen harriers. The Forest of Bowland was the only stronghold for hen harriers in England in 1982 – it still is. I’ll be contributing a series of guest blogs over the spring and summer and tweeting in real time on @andrefarrar
In my last post I mentioned a common sandpiper in distress following a summer downpour. I worried that its nest had been washed away – a few days later I was delighted to see a young sandpiper in roughly the same area, so fingers crossed it was one of the survivors. The sudden downpour in my otherwise hot and sunny summer was it stark contrast to the storms of 2012.
Slightly embarrassingly, I find another hen harrier nest with four plump young sat in it. It’s the sixth nest I’ve now located (with my team of two volunteers). The numbers of red grouse seemed good to me – as their young grow larger and stronger, numbers on my transects have increased.
It was on one of my transects that I found the latest harrier nest – I must have walked within 100m of it half a dozen times.
The harrier nest I was watching most regularly was a hive of activity as the young exercised their wings – when their parents returned they rushed back in to the heart of the nest platform to grab their share ... they were strong and vigorous, fledging (the point at which they can leave the nest area and start their lives as independent harriers) couldn’t be far off.
One of the hen harrier chicks hiding in the heather. Photo Andre Farrar
The hills were suddenly a little quieter as the sheep were rounded up and taken off with their lambs, now only a little smaller than their mothers. With the departure of the sheep the male harrier who had spent the past few weeks endlessly buzzing them to keep them away from the nest, will have more time on his hands ... or wings.
Follow me on twitter
We would love to hear your thoughts on the blog and all things Skydancer. To leave a comment, simply register with RSPB Community by clicking on the link at the top right-hand corner of the page. Registration is completely free and only takes a moment. Let us know what you think!
I really wish I had been able to talk about harriers as much as I seem have been talking about the bad weather this year. Too much of one and really not enough of the other is how I feel about this season!
That rain at the end of last week really did hit us hard in Bowland. As you’ll see from these pictures the rivers rose to almost bursting points in places.
Langden beck in spate on Friday 22nd June. © Jude Lane, RSPB
The usually calm, babbling Langden beck was transformed into a roaring brown torrent, undoubtedly washing away any late nests and as Gav said in his latest blog, causing young chicks to die either from starvation or cold as the parents searched for hard to find food. It wasn’t just species that nest close to the river that were affected either, a couple of our merlin nests, situated on shallow moorland slopes succumbed to the torrential rain, sadly resulting in the loss of young chicks. Fortunately the peregrine chicks, being that much older, had just fledged so were able to get themselves sheltered and presumably just watched on as the water poured off the fells and into the ever rising rivers below.
The fish pass in the Dunsop valley today (above) and on Friday 22nd June. © Jude Lane, RSPB
For those of you keen to hear about 74843, you’ll be pleased to hear that she’s still transmitting strongly. She has established herself a relatively small home range of about 8 x 3 km in the Yorkshire Dales over which she hunts by day before roosting in a large bracken bed at night. Although she appears much more settled (as in she's not been taking herself off to Scotland every other week or so!) we can tell from her satellite fixes that she’s not made a late breeding attempt as the location of her fixes and the corresponding mileage have been too active for a breeding female. Maybe next year?
We would love to hear your thoughts on the blog and all things Skydancer. To leave a comment, simply register with RSPB Community by clicking on the link at the top righthand corner of the page. Registration is completely free and only takes a moment. Let us know what you think!
Guest blog from Gavin Thomas, Bowland Wader Project Officer.
... is what it says on the mug on my desk - part of the recipe for Lapwing breeding success. But how much water? This is indeed ‘Great weather for ducks’ but also apparently ‘great weather for wading birds’ I’m often told. I have to dispel this myth - waders detest this weather as much as the rest of us do.
True, wading birds like wet bits - shallow muddy edged pools, scrapes, wet flushes and ditch edges, and a little rain in the spring does keep these wet features topped up - providing ideal conditions for the invertebrate communities that waders feed on. But, prolonged heavy rain and the resultant increasingly regular floods in the breeding season is nothing short of a nightmare for ground nesting birds.
Those of you who watched Iolo Williams on Springwatch last month picking up Lapwing chick corpses, drowned by flooding on our Ynys-hir reserve in Wales, will have got the message in graphic detail. That scene has haunted many other areas of the UK this spring. Take the entire population of breeding waders at our Ouse Washes reserve in the East Anglian fens for example. This internationally important site, along with the Nene Washes, holds most of the country’s breeding Black tailed Godwits and over a third of all lowland England’s Snipe, all crowded into one area of habitat that (sometimes) remains suitable for them. It is the proverbial all eggs in the one basket scenario.
Being a flood storage area for vast tracts of agricultural land that surround the reserve, the waders at the Ouse Washes took the hit and every clutch of eggs and young chicks was lost. We are working with the Environment Agency, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and landowners and farmers close to the reserve to look for other baskets - habitat free from the flooding risk nearby….
These are lowland wet grassland sites and thankfully here in Bowland, the geography largely protects ground nesting birds from such devastating events. That said, any ground nesting bird that spends prolonged periods off its clutch of eggs in such weather will run the risk of those eggs chilling. Furthermore, for the first few weeks of their life, wader chicks are unable to regulate their own body temperature and need to be brooded by the adults to keep warm. They need to feed regularly too, so prolonged brooding may actually result in the birds dying of starvation. But venturing out to feed into heavy rain through wet vegetation when you are still downy can result in a soaking, a chill and the inevitable. Tough choices eh?
Not all bad news though. Remember the fencepost-top nesting Oystercatcher in Bleasdale? Well that bird clearly avoided any flooding, plus the host farmer reports that two eggs hatched from its clutch of three. Where there’s a wader there’s a way. Perhaps those that make decisions to build housing estates on floodplains should take note!
It's been a bit quiet on the blog front lately but that's only because we've been out and about doing what Skydancer was designed to do - bringing hen harriers to the people! So far, we've attended the Newcastle Green Festival, Northumberland County Show, Cumberland Show and the Glendale Children's Day. Not including the children's day (at which I completely lost count!), we've given out over 240 hen harrier leaflets, 233 hen harrier stickers and 194 children have made their very own flapping paper hen harriers to take away!
As usual, the puppets were the star attractions and having them on display really brought home how few people can recognise or have even heard of a hen harrier. Frequent refrains of "I like your owls," provided a good conversational hook, "Yes, they do look quite like owls. They're actually hen harriers but they hunt in quite a similar way..." and so it went. One small girl was less enamoured though, and told me in no uncertain terms that "Harry and Henrietta" would never work as names. If we wanted children to like the puppets, they would have to be called "Harry and Hermione" because that was "more magical"! I stand corrected.
The great thing about events like these is that no two days are the same and each attracts its own particular audience. Across the five days, I've chatted with all sorts of people - urban, rural, hippy, corporate, young, old, pro-shooting and anti-shooting - and the amazing thing is not a single one of those conversations was negative (about hen harriers I mean - we received at least one good rant about badgers and magpies)! Once we explained the situation currently facing hen harriers and what we're hoping to achieve through Skydancer, everyone we spoke to agreed that it would be wonderful to see more hen harriers and that "something should be done" to protect and encourage them. Already, I can feel the momentum buliding and just you wait - we're only getting started!
Next stop - West Cumbria Game Fair, 14-15th July, Keswick... come say hi!
Ringing birds remains an important part of monitoring their fortunes, still true today although now there are many other techniques such as the satellite tracking work that has uncovered the travels of harrier 74843 - a method that will no doubt reveal much more about the lives of hen harriers, where they go and what happens to them. Thirty years ago I accompanied Keith, a licensed bird ringer, on his visit to a nest full of plump harrier chicks. One of them was clearly in the middle of a meal as a meadow pipit foot was sticking out the corner of its beak.
The young harriers were now nestled in their own heather-covered spaces away from the nest platform.
It was noticeable now that female harriers were hunting – spared their stay-at-nest duties – that grouse remains were becoming more noticeable at the nests I was monitoring. This wasn’t much of surprise as the larger more powerful females are clearly capable of tacking larger prey than their males.
My days, while not exactly lazy, were not quite the endless hike of my first months; lots of watching sheep-buzzing harriers and swishing away midges.
With a roar of wings (nay even a murmuration) a thousand young starlings passed my hiding places, for a few seconds putting me in the heart of their flock.
A sudden summer downpour (unusual in the glorious summer of 1982) turned the upland streams into torrents of tea-coloured water, a distressed common sandpiper’s urgent calling probably showing that the deluge had overwhelmed her nest.
And as summer took hold, eight golden plovers passed overhead – a gathering that told of the turning of the year.