Plenty of hen harrier sightings but still no pair just about sums it up, I'm afraid. We are now in the last chance saloon for this season. Thanks to a remarkably dedicated cohort of volunteers, on-site monitoring has been both thorough and discreet. We have had at least one watcher covertly monitoring the site for at least a part of every day since mid-February so we haven't missed much, despite the ubiquitous and wearying wind that has accompanied us almost every day for over six weeks now. Despite the project area being elevated, exposed and lacking shelter at the lookout locations, the volunteers have stuck it out whatever the weather and could not have been more conscientious.
After the three March appearances (two adult females and an adult male mentioned in my previous blog) we have had five sightings in April. Four of these were female ringtails (one of which was immature), the fifth an adult (possibly sub-adult) male. On the basis of the most detailed observations and notes I could make at the time, I conservatively estimate that, so far this season, we have had at least four different individuals on, over or immediately around the site. However, as (bad) luck would have it, we have never had more than one bird at a time in the vicinity. If I was paranoid and subscribed to anthropomorphism I could almost suspect a hen harrier conspiracy against us.
Seriously though, as far as I am aware there isn't a single known breeding pair of hen harriers anywhere in Northumberland so far this year, and we must ask ourselves why not. Lack of suitable ground is emphatically not the problem - Northumberland alone could accommodate many tens of pairs. Likewise, lack of food sources or poor Spring weather cannot be blamed. The problem is simple, stark and obvious: lack of numbers. As to why - I'll come back to this vexed question at later date, so watch this space....
Hello from the Forest of Bowland for the first time this year!
Let me start off with a quick introduction. My name is Jude Lane and I am the new RSPB Bowland Project Officer. I started in post in January this year, taking over from Pete Wilson who has been blogging on this site about the harriers in Bowland since 2009 and who worked in the role for 11 years – quite some shoes to fill!
So, just in case you have forgotten or are new to reading this post, my role as Bowland Project Officer is based on the United Utilities (UU) estate within the Forest of Bowland. UU own 10,000 ha of upland in the Forest of Bowland which they manage primarily for water abstraction. However, the UU estate is also the most important site for breeding Hen harriers in England. Last year there were 12 Hen harrier nesting attempts in England, 10 of those were on UU’s Bowland estate.
So how are the harriers doing this year? I hear you ask. Well, after a bit of a slow start we now have six nests on the estate which are all doing well, no doubt helped by the dry weather we had throughout April.
The monitoring of the Hen harriers and also Peregrines and Merlins is being carried out, as in previous years, by a team of people. Peter Jones is working as the RSPB’s seasonal assistant warden (he also held the post last season) along side our team of fantastically knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers and myself.
Well I'll keep it short but sweet for my first update but make sure you keep watching this space to keep up to date with all the harrier news from Bowland!
Well, the seasons' wheel has turned and here we are again in North Tynedale, Northumberland, still waiting and watching in eager (and, if the truth be told, nervous) anticipation for the establishment of a pair of hen harriers with procreation on their minds. A few dedicated, expert RSPB volunteers and myself monitor the site every day. We watch covertly from high points at least 1 km away from all previous nest locations. Over the time of first arrivals and courtship the birds are extremely wary and sensitive so that, as much as humanly possible, we want to see without being seen. Like trying to sell a house, any perceived sense of threat or disturbance in the neighbourhood could all too easily dissuade the interested parties.
The volunteers' diligence was first rewarded this year on Saturday 12 March when local stalwart Joanna Dailey provided the team with the first sighting of the season: an adult female in from the southeast and rising up over the very ground where previous nests were located. For the watchers, the best possible morale-booster. The local female peregrine seemed non too pleased though. A tussle ensued until the harrier headed off to the south. On the following Monday, the warmest day of the year to that date brought me a second sighting, again of an adult female, this time foraging over flat, open rough country just over 1 km from the traditional nesting ground. Males usually do the prospecting first, as witnessed here last year, but it was relatively early in the breeding cycle and, given the potential suitability of so much of Northumberland, those precious few males have a heck of lot of ground to cover.
Not until March 22 did the first male of the year drop in. I had in the morning both goshawk and buzzard displaying at distance and had heard occasional peregrine alarm calls, but it wasn't until I was getting ready to leave at 17.20 that I clocked a pristine adult male sitting on a fence post less than 200m from the 2007 and 2008 nest locations. Just my luck that I had arranged a volunteers' get-together in a local tavern for which I had to be there at 18.00. The news kick-started an excellent evening, while for the next few days of monitoring the unfavorable weather went unnoticed in our excitement and anticipation of a hen harrier holding territory. Unfortunately, our great expectations were thwarted by his failure to reappear. Such is life.
Small birds do very well here, especially meadow pipits, skylarks, chaffinches, crossbills, siskins, willow warblers and tits. There are also signs that field vole numbers are buoyant this year. So, the larder is well stocked, the real-estate is prime and has caught the eye of at least one female, and the weather favorable. All that's left to say at this stage is: come on lad, where are you?
Tuesday May 18, 0735 and warm for the time of day. Watching over the North Tynedale site, I was bathed in sunlight and out of the wind. Suddenly, three dots close together in the distance - tussling raptors. It'll be the nesting peregrine pair and a buzzard, I thought, but the white rump of the latter shining out like a beacon through my binoculars proved me wrong. It was an adult female hen harrier. After sparring with the peregrines it soared up over the local high point as if in triumph and with a couple of dives and switchbacks gave me the closest thing to skydancing that I've seen at North Tynedale this year. A wonderful sight, tempered only by the realisation that, in my experience at least, there always seems to be an element of desperation when an adult female dances alone. Yes - I'm sorry to have to tell you that the North Tynedale site lacks a breeding pair of hen harriers, and it's getting close to the now-or-never time.The season began well enough. As early as March 10 there were two male hen harriers on site, an impressive, gleaming mature adult and a sub-adult, still with a little brown on it but handsome nonetheless. The former saw off the latter on the same day, soared a lot despite the breeze and the bitter cold, but would not dance. He proceeded to make an appearance just about daily for the next month. Unfortunately, over the following month or so his appearances gradually tailed off to nothing, and in all that time we never had a single confirmed sighting of an adult female hen harrier. It seems at first that he was prepared to hold and defend territory, but he could only have stayed on his tod for so long before casting his net wider.Sightings of females have only recently begun to pick up both here and further afield in the region, but now sightings of males are rare. It seems that up until now the fates have decreed that we can have males or females on site but not both together. I suppose the root cause of the problem comes down to critically low numbers in the north of England - coupled with the wealth of potential breeding sites across the region. Whatever and wherever, I just hope that as many pair up as possible: "never the twain" would be tragic. It may not be too late for North Tynedale, though. A bitter and protracted winter has given us a very late spring - I was snowed on as recently as May 14!As you know, prolonged watching always brings rewards, of which a few you couldn't have hoped to expect. Nine species of raptor (hen harrier, buzzard, goshawk, sparrowhawk, peregrine, kestrel, merlin, red kite and osprey), three species of owl (barn, tawny and long-eared) and hordes of charming redpoll, siskin, goldcrest and crossbill - some of the latter with juveniles in February! And I’m expecting nightjar to arrive any day now.So all-in-all more than enough incentives to put the hours in for the volunteer watchers. No 24/7 operation to date this year of course, but most daylight hours are covered. The small numbers of RSPB and Natural England volunteers have been splendid - dedicated, discrete and professional. The Forestry Commission, whose land the site is on, has also provided invaluable support, facilitating the project and providing me with an office at their Bellingham headquarters. As ever we've taken a softly-softly approach to surveillance, keeping well back from the potential breeding area, happily engaging with visitors coming in for any reason and just letting nature take its course for all North Tynedale wildlife. As for the harriers, well it is late but never say never……
I’ve just spent the day checking part of the estate for harriers, and also ring ouzels (also a bit of a passion of mine). From home I could see that the hills were shrouded with low cloud, but the forecast was for a significant improvement (fool that I am, I believed them!).
At the car park, packing my rucksack, I realised that I’d not brought anything to drink (more fool!). So it was off to the local shop to buy something, only to discover that I had just 80p to my name. Asking the shop owner how much a particular drink was, his reply being, “90p”, I groaned loudly and asked if he had anything for 80p or less. Amazingly, he said that I could take my chosen drink for that amount! My faith restored in human kindness, off I went.
In the intervening time, the cloud had lifted and the sun was making tentative signs of breaking through. More joy, the forecast was accurate! I might actually see something.
Once up onto the fells, a male harrier soon made an appearance, carrying food to its mate. However, the female wasn’t cooperating, and the male circled around for a few minutes looking for her, before disappearing from view. He soon returned, accompanied by the female, and they slowly circled around, climbing higher and higher together. Magic.
The harrier activity I reported on last time seems to have settled down a little bit in the last few days, and this may be coincidence, but we have also located two further nests, taking the total to seven confirmed nesting attempts.
This is really pleasing, as this equals last years number of nests. And I’m still hopeful for one, or possibly two, more nests. However, this is just half the story, as of course what actually fledges from the nests is more important than anything else. So we have some way to go yet.
For the last three years we have operated a harrier nest camera in partnership with Natural England, Lancashire County Council Countryside Service and United Utilities. Last year was a little fraught, as we didn’t have a suitable nest to use until quite late in the season. This year, however, the harriers have been a lot kinder to us, and have nested in a very convenient location. The task for tomorrow is to take the equipment that has been in storage over winter, up onto the fell and roughly lay it out ready for us going ’live’ in a three weeks time.
Sound easy, but believe me, carting this kind of gear across moorland is no easy job, even with an all terrain vehicle.