‘Suddenly the female rose from deep within the reeds, she circled looking upwards and gaining height, then out of nowhere another bird silently arrived, he the most sleekest steel grey raptor with rowing wing beats, he was carrying prey and heading directly for her, they momentary met, the gift was exchanged and another year of breeding was sealed in that encounter.’

RSPB's Mark Thomas celebrates one of nature's nomads

 

Image of male and female Montagu’s Harrier (credit Graham Catley)

With only seven breeding pairs in 2015 the Montagu's harrier is the rarest breeding bird of prey in the UK.

This nomadic species currently breeds on agricultural land in three locations in this country, and widely across Europe, from Spain to Belarus. The survival of the UK population is dependent on both the positive partnerships between farmers and conservationists and birds surviving their amazing migrations.

The UK breeding population has always been small and prone to fluctuations in success, as elsewhere across the European range. The RSPB and its partners have been protecting UK Montagu's harrier nests since 1982.

In order to understand the factors that control our small population and to protect Montagu's harriers during migration and on their wintering grounds, we also need to understand how and where they migrate and where our birds winter. This information, supported by research in the UK and West Africa, is crucial to developing a plan to help Montagu's harriers in all parts of their range.

Satellite tagging provides these answers! During the last two years experts from the Dutch Montagu's Harrier Foundation have fitted six adult Montagu’s harriers with small, lightweight satellite tags in the UK.

The project, licensed by the BTO, is providing detailed information on the daily movements, migration routes and wintering locations for each bird.

Map showing the migration routes of three UK satellite-tagged Montagu’s harriers 2015-2016. NB all journeys start/stop in London due to secrecy of actual nest locations.

It’s easy to forget when watching these special birds at places like Blacktoft Sands RSPB Reserve that they only spend four months in the UK and the other eight on migration or wintering in Africa. They are not our birds, they don’t know boundaries but they certainly need all our collective help.

Even in the short space of two years we have learnt many things: this species is a marvelous flyer able to cover over 180 miles per day on active migration, males are highly site faithful returning to the exact same nest field and females are just as likely to chose a different breeding country one year to the next! In Senegal, communal roosts of over 5000 birds have been found recently and here their diet consists largely of locusts!

Montagu’s harriers are fully protected by the Birds Directive across every EU country, yet despite this legal protection birds are annually and illegally shot dead when passing through the Eastern Mediterranean, a terribly saddening situation that must change. Throughout the past year we’ve been campaigning hard against the weakening of the Birds Directive and its sibling law, the Habitats Directive. We’ve worked with partners in every country across Europe to call for them to be fully implemented and enforced, to properly protect birds like the Monty’s harriers. The future of these laws is still uncertain – you can help keep the pressure on European politicians to put them properly into practice by joining BirdLife Europe's online thunderclap.

Tomorrow we launch our annual Montagu’s harrier hotline. If you see one of these special birds please let us know by calling 01767 693398, and working with land owners we will both monitor their progress and protect their nests.

The Montagu’s harrier is a truly splendid bird, epitomising a nomadic freedom so lost in the modern world. On World Migratory Bird Day

we salute you!

 

Male Montagu’s harrier over yellow field (credit Roger Wyatt)