At last!

Hooray! I’ve finally caught up with my local male Hen Harrier at Stanwick Lakes.

Not even a tiny step for mankind, one giant leap for one bloke.

Such a lot of fuss over a bird will seem pretty odd to many normal people, but perhaps less odd to many regular readers of this blog.

Why am I so pleased? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, I have a slight preference that I see every bird that is ever seen on my local patch – it’s where I do a lot of my birdwatching and although I am pretty relaxed about other people seeing lots of birds I don’t see, I’d still like to see them. But second, a Hen Harrier, and a male Hen Harrier, a silver ghost, is a marvellous bird to see anywhere. I don’t see them that often, probably most years but not many in any one year. So I’d like to see a Hen Harrier just because they look nice (and they look nicer still on my local patch). But third, this is a bird in which I am emotionally engaged too. It is a highly persecuted bird; persecuted on grouse moors and by shooting interests simply because, among many other things, it eats Red Grouse that people will pay to shoot. This beautiful bird, on my local patch, is a survivor and therefore deserves to be celebrated.

Well, you either get it or you don’t!

Male Hen Harrier. Photo: Gordon Yates

It wasn’t a great view – certainly not like the image above, but the same plumage. We first saw it perched and then taking a short flight and perching on the ground. After shuffling around a bit it hunkered down and we couldn’t see it at all. This was at 3:05pm and it was still quite light. We kept an eye on the distant patch of grass and then at 4:05pm we saw a bit more shuffling about and then the bird took off and flew and quickly went behind a row of willow trees. We didn’t see it again. As I say, not a great view, but a couple of short distant views of a bird which have given me more pleasure than many (most) much rarer birds I’ve seen. I’m so pleased that male Hen Harrier is there and I’m so pleased that I’ve now seen it.

Femail Hen Harrier. Photo: Gordon Yates.

I’m wishing it a long and successful life but that’s quite a lot to ask for given the level of illegal persecution on UK grouse moors in the north of England, southern and eastern Scotland. If this bird heads north to breed this spring after feasting on Northamptonshire’s voles and small birds this winter, it may find itself on a grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales or on Deeside or Donside. It may settle there because there are no other Hen Harriers holding territories, and it may start displaying over the moor to attract and impress any passing female Hen Harriers. If it does this, then it is unlikely to survive because in most years hardly any Hen Harriers nest on intensive grouse moors in the UK – though many will try and many will pass through them. Let’s hope it is a bird heading back to Wales (where there is very little grouse shooting and the population has increased over recent decades), or to the west of Scotland , the Inner Hebrides, the Western Isles or Orkney (where the same applies) or perhaps a continental bird heading back to any other country in this bird’s European range where it will be pretty safe because intensive grouse shooting is a peculiarly British so-called sport and so it is unlikely that anyone will be gunning for it.

If you are reading this post and are new to this bird and this subject then here is a reading list if you’d like to learn more.

Bowland Beth by David Cobham published by William Collins.

Skydancer by Martin Bradley, published by Skyhunter Books.

The Hen Harrier (2nd edition) by Donald Watson, published by Bloomsbury.

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis, published by OUP.

Inglorious by me, published by Bloomsbury.
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24 Replies to “At last!”

  1. there is nothing in British birding greater than watching a pair of hen harriers, so may it continue, great work Mark

  2. One about in this part of Cambridgeshire, was watching a female hunt a sugar beet field last week, fantastic to watch!

  3. I'm so jealous mark. I've never seen one. I've seen marsh Harriers in Sweden. But never a harrier in this country. If we win the war against driven grouse shooting,then maybe,just maybe I might.
    Thank you Mark.

    1. Scott - don't get jealous, get out and see one for yourself! And the best of luck. And you are right that your chances of seeing your first will be greatly enhanced by the demise of driven grouse shooting. But it's not 'if we sin' it's 'when we win' - believe it!

    1. Sandra - it feels like that! There are many other local birders who, like me, have visited time after time to get a glimpse of this bird and i think most must have caight up with it by now. It's been a social thing - more birders at the relevant part of the site than I have ever seen before. Brought together by a wonderful bird.

  4. Congratulations Mark. I had to go all the way to Mull to see my first (and so far only) Hen Harrier. Not very many of them around in Worcestershire sadly but I share your joy and excitement in seeing such a wonderful bird

  5. Well done Mark. I've been having to work hard to get brief glimpses of my local Hen Harriers, often a brief glimpse the best part of a mile off. Mind you yesterday, and a few weeks back I got treated to a Peregrine pursuing Ravens with utter determination. I'm not sure exactly what's going on, whether the Peregrine has got a pathological hatred of Ravens, or if it really does fancy one for lunch.

  6. I'm very pleased for you Mark. I'm always up lifted when I go for a specific bird and get it even more so if its a raptor and male Hen Harriers are the best of raptors.
    I went for a bird today, I understood a local wood I'd not been in before was hosting a rather large flock of Bramblings so off I when this afternoon. I think I was a little too late and they may have gone off to roost but what a bonus! Went for Bramblings found or had fly over me, in truth 15 Hawfinches

  7. At last!!
    When I see my girl in the winter(now girls!) I offer up a prayer that she will go back to her home in Scandinavia and live safely to come back next year. One day soon I’ll tell her it’s safe to stay!

  8. We're very lucky that we can see hen harriers quite often near our home in France, but they remain an elusive, special bird of wild places. They are indeed marvellous; watching a hen harrier just being a hen harrier is an uplifting experience beyond (for me) watching, say, a corn bunting being a corn bunting.

    We're unlikely to see a hen harrier through our kitchen window, but some good birds do pitch up around the house, and, yes, I do feel greatly chuffed about something new on our patch. Seeing a short-toed eagle perched about 20 metres away as we arrived back one day was good, as was a hawfinch about 2 metres from the back door. And hearing the weird call of a black woodpecker from the meadow, for the first time in 25 years, was a winner.

    1. Fab list – I’ve never seen or heard a Black Woodpecker and certainly not that eagle thing. Reluctantly, we’ve got to hand it to the French – long may they live and make the difference.
      (Distant memories of the songs of Golden Oriels rolling across the French countryside in the unrelenting heat of 1976.)
      But as per Mark's 'at last' moment, there's nothing like finding something on home ground.

  9. Ah, the Raven vs Peregrine thing; a rivalry as old as time - well a few million years anyway (maybe Mark has the evolutionary data to hand?)! I think that they are more than aware of their ability to hurt each other, should they wish, but that, perhaps, just adds an edge to the advanced flight training their mutual abilities provide for each other. The one point of real danger for both species is when nesting (young of the former, both eggs and young of the latter), but they will readily nest in quite close proximity on the same cliff face or in the same quarry. Regular aerial confrontations in those situations seem to be a case of 'don't you dare even think about it!' It might happen, but I've personally never seen an attack pressed home with deadly seriousness, which is in contrast to my experience of Raven vs Merlin; I have seen a Raven stray too close to a Merlin nest and the Merlin force it out of the sky. The Merlin's tactic was to repeatedly aim for back of the Raven's head and the Raven, despite it's own superb manoeuvrability, was simply outclassed and could do very little about it, with it's only choice being to eventually hunker down on the ground. A few scratches aside, perhaps, no real harm done but lesson probably learned!

  10. If I'm brutally honest I actually fear for this bird before it even leaves Northants. We've had a shot Buzzard that had to be put down at the Raptor Foundation in St.Ives (Cambs) where I used to work found at Sywell Country Park a few weeks back, a Redkite was shot and killed a few years back nearby at Ringstead so let's hope it even makes it through the winter

  11. And bang on cue the other threat to our wildlife, the idiot brigade
    Any thoughts or upcoming blog about this threat coming up soon?

  12. Reading that brought a smile to my face, Mark and I was lucky enough to share that upsurge of joy seeing the pair of Hen Harriers at Parkgate yesterday. Made standing in a raging gale force wind worthwhile, especially as I had no expectations of seeing them. Nothing like that quiet "Oh yes....." when they appear, is there?


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