A male hen harrier carrying a twig in flight

Have you seen a hen harrier?

Seen a hen harrier?

The date, time, and location of sighting (with a grid reference if possible, or what3words reference), plus a description of the bird will help us to track rare hen harriers and inform our conservation work.

 

Coast on a stormy day

England, Northern Ireland and Wales

henharriers@rspb.org.uk
Coast on a stormy day

Scotland only

henharrier@nature.scot

Identifying a hen harrier

In the spring and summer months, hen harriers can be seen in the hills looking for mates and nesting sites in heather moorland. These hills and heather moorlands, also known as uplands, cover over a third of the UK and are important for drinking water, carbon storage in peat and soils and to some of our most threatened wildlife.

In the winter hen harriers can be found in a variety of habitats including moorland, farmland, grassland and wetlands. Take a look at our hen harrier species page to learn more about these beautiful birds.

Dark clouds over hills and heathland

All hen harriers have yellow legs, a hooked black beak, and fly with their wings in a shallow “V”. They glide low to search their prey: small birds such as meadow pipits, skylarks and young grouse, and small mammals such as voles.

The hen harrier has many nicknames – one of the most common is "ghost of the moor" and it is easy to see why. The male hen harrier has pale grey plumage, a white rump (rear end) and black-tipped wings.

Hen Harrier flying directly towards the camera

Ringtails

Female and juvenile hen harriers, also known as “ringtails”, both look very similar, with brown on top, checkerboard brown and beige underwings, a white rump and a bearded tail. However, females are larger than males at 400­-600g, compared to 300-400g. They’re smaller than buzzards, but larger than crows.

You may see a ringtail bird skydancing. This is probably a male juvenile practicing courtship behaviour. It is not until the juvenile male’s second or third summer that they get their distinctive grey plumage.

A ringtail hen harrier swooping in to land on heath

Similar species

Buzzard

You may also spot these medium-sized birds of prey in the uplands. Their banded tail and variation in plumage colouring, from dark to paler brown, and similar size means they can easily be mistaken for hen harriers. Look out for rounded wing tips and lack of distinctive barring on their underwings.

Buzzards can be found in a range of habitats, including farmland and woodland.


Lapwing

Lapwings are found on farmland across the UK, particularly in lowland areas of northern England, the Borders and eastern Scotland.
Lapwings have a deep elastic wingbeat in flight, but like hen harriers, they’re fast flyers with aerobatic displays.

Lapwings are smaller than hen harriers, with dark upper sides on their angular wings.


Short eared owl

Unlike most other owls, short-eared owls are active during the day. They tend to fly low over the uplands, as well as grasslands and saltmarshes. They are a similar size to barn owls, but with stiffer wings, and nest on the ground, in hollows lined with grass and feathers.

The distinctive yellow eyes and cream to brown plumage are similar to hen harriers. Short-eared owls can be identified by dark mascara around their eyes, and a mottled sandy-buff top.

Short eared owl

A short eared owl perched on a wooden post
Find out more