With little new to report on the movements of our harriers in recent weeks it was exciting to hear of a tagged harrier from Scotland being sighted in Essex last week, on one of our fantastic nature reserves at Wallasea Island nonetheless! No such great journeys to report on locally, bar Burt’s short trip into Cheshire last month. Highlander, one of the young female harriers from the first Bowland nest this summer, continues to reside in the West Pennine Moors, whilst Burt, the young male fledged from the second Bowland nest, has returned to form wandering widely around the AONB. Whilst doing so, his satellite tag has been providing some excellent data allowing us to pinpoint the various locations he has chosen to feed and roost.

Burt and Highlander's movements over the past three weeks

As well as having our eyes peeled on the data coming in from satellite tagged hen harriers, there are also sightings of harriers coming in from a passionate bunch of folk out there looking for harriers on the fells and in the wider countryside. After several fixes in close proximity late one evening revealing Burt’s exact roosting location, one of these harrier watchers was given a tip off and was in position before dawn the next day. Jean Roberts takes up the story....

After a tip-off from Gavin regarding the whereabouts of Burt, I got up well before first light the next morning to see if I could get a sighting of the young hen harrier leaving his roost site. Normally it is very difficult for me to get up so early and in the dark but that morning it was no problem at all - I was full of hope and excitement! This gave way to apprehension after 20 minutes on site staring at nothing, but suddenly, five minutes before sunrise, up popped Burt from his roost, materialising magically above the fell. I could hardly believe it. It was fantastic to see him still alive and well, especially after the disappearance of Sky and Hope, two of the other satellite-tagged youngsters I’d been hoping to follow through their first few months of life.

The sudden “jumping up” of harriers from a roost has been documented by Donald Watson in his excellent book “The Hen Harrier” but it was still a surprise to see it. As I watched, Burt started to quarter the hillside for breakfast but a resident crow spotted him and gave chase. Burt effortlessly dodged the crow with some sideways manoeuvres and, with a flash of his white rump, he flew down the hillside out of view. Some minutes later he mysteriously reappeared, having sneaked up the hillside without either me or the nearby crow noticing. With typical buoyant flight and wings held in a shallow V Burt flew agilely down into a dip and disappeared again. I waited a while but didn’t see him again after that.

This is both the joy and frustration of harrier watching as I have found out over the years. Harriers appear so suddenly giving you a jolt but, in the time it takes to scrabble for binoculars to get a better view, they disappear again and you’re wishing you’d noticed the plumage details better or whether they had a sat tag or wishing you hadn’t bothered to get your binoculars at all! But the all too brief sightings of Burt had made my day and I returned home in a very happy frame of mind for a celebratory breakfast.

It is experiences such as this that spur me on to get more involved in supporting the monitoring and conservation work being undertaken for hen harriers and other birds in my local area. It is good to know that, along with that of others, my information, positive or negative, helps to build a picture of where our harriers are, how many there are, where they are roosting and foraging and dare I say, where they are under threat from illegal persecution.


Male Hen Harrier heading in to its winter roost site - always guaranteed to get the pulse racing and brighten a dull winter's afternoon! Copyright John Whitting.

If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at henharriers@rspb.org.uk or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible. 

Gavin Thomas and Jean Roberts

11 November 2014