Rare bird mystery prompts international search

Martin Fowlie

Thursday 17 May 2018

Releasing Mark, the montagu's harrier

A Montagu’s harrier – the UK’s rarest breeding bird of prey – brought nations together by sparking an international search after one being tracked, mysteriously disappeared.

Just four pairs of Montagu’s harriers are known to have nested in England in 2017, in secret locations in Norfolk and the South West. These beautiful birds spend the winter in West Africa, then, in spring, begin their long journey home crossing deserts and mountains.

James, a male Montagu’s harrier, was one of several birds fitted with a lightweight satellite tag to better understand the movements of these enigmatic birds. Transmissions showed that he began his journey back to England on 2 April and looked likely to be the first bird home. But in Algeria he suddenly stopped, causing concern. His tag continued transmitting from a remote, mountainous area, so the RSPB took to social media to uncover what had happened to him.

Mark Thomas, who leads on Montagu’s harrier conservation work for the RSPB, said:

“Watching our tagged birds race home each spring is exhilarating – but sadly not all make it back to England. This year bad weather across the Sahara forced many to double back or take pit-stops, but James’ situation caused us to worry. We spoke to our colleagues in Holland, who had fitted the tags, then through Twitter we made contact with conservationists in Algeria who searched for James. On 4 May, our friends in Algeria recovered the tag and, sadly, James’ body too. It looked like he had been dead for a while and we suspect he died of natural causes. We are sad but amazed that, using social media, we were able to make contact with people in this remote spot nearly 2000 miles away and recover James. Hopefully the rest of our birds will survive their long, tough journey.”

The RSPB is also asking people to report sightings of Montagu’s harriers as they return home this May. Montagu’s harriers usually return to nest in the same areas each year – often on lowland farmland, particularly winter cereals, oilseed rape and field silage. It is essential that the number of breeding attempts made this year are identified and protected from accidental damage, disturbance or persecution to give these splendid birds the best possible chance. The RSPB has been working successfully with landowners for more than 30 years to protect these birds. But everyone can play a part in helping build a picture of the UK’s small Montagu’s harrier population by reporting sightings to: montys@rspb.org.uk

Mark Thomas said:

“Farmers, birdwatchers and anyone out in the countryside can really help with the conservation of this threatened species. Now is the best time to witness the adults’ airborne courtship display before they establish their crop nests and become difficult to spot. If you are fortunate enough to see one, please let us know.”

Currently a bird named John is in the lead, crossing central Spain. You can follow the tagged birds on Twitter @UKMontagus

How to spot a Montagu’s harrier:

Size: larger than a kestrel, smaller and slimmer than a buzzard

Build: slender, with long wings and a long tail

Colour: males are plain grey with black wingtips and a white underside. Females are mottled brown with a white rump.

Distinguishing features: the males have a black stripe along the inner wing.

If you’re lucky enough to spot a Montagu’s harrier, please email montys@rspb.org.uk. Details should include the date, six digit grid reference if possible and a contact telephone number. All reports to the hotline will be treated in the strictest of confidence.

For other wildlife enquires and sightings, contact 01767 693690.

Last Updated: Tuesday 28 August 2018

Tagged with: Country: UK Topic: Birds and wildlife Topic: Birds of prey