Monitoring Montagu's harriers 

Written by Emma Tovell

Following in the footsteps of the satellite tracking of three Montagu’s harriers Mo, Madge and Mark in 2014, the project  to monitor the movements of the UK’s rarest breeding bird of prey is once again underway in East Anglia. The project is led by Dutch researchers from the “Montagu’s Harrier Foundation” alongside conservationists from the RSPB, and aims to learn more about this summer visitor and the incredible journey this beautiful bird takes every year back to Africa for winter.

Mark, the first ever male Montagu's harrier to be fitted with a satellite tracker in the UK, delighted everyone back in April by returning to the area where he was originally tagged. Last year, Mark spent the summer as a helper at another male's nest- common practice for younger males before they reach breeding maturity- but this summer Mark bred successfully for the first time and has fathered and helped to raise three chicks of his own.

Mark, the first ever male Montagu's harrier to be tagged in the UK. Credit: RSPB


Mark, photographed here in 2014 shortly before release, raised three chicks in East Anglia this year. Credit: RSPB

East Anglia is the place to be

East Anglia is an extremely important breeding ground for this striking migratory bird, known to bird watchers affectionately as “Monty’s”, with three of just seven UK nesting attempts being recorded in East Anglia in 2015, largely on lowland farmland rather than marshes- lucky, as nests on farmland produce more chicks for this specially protected bird!

Historically, the number of Montagu's harriers breeding in the UK has always been very small- fluctuating between 10 and 15 pairs- meaning the opportunity to monitor this incredibly rare UK breeding species using lightweight, lifelong satellite trackers is welcomed by conservationists and wildlife ecologists alike.

Mark being released in 2014 after satellite tagging. Credit: RSPB

Mark Thomas, who leads on Montagu’s harrier conservation work for the RSPB, said: “This is an exciting and important application of satellite tracking technology that will help us to monitor their movements and locate their feeding areas to understand more about these harriers’ not just here in the UK, but in their wintering grounds in Africa and on their migratory journey in between.”

This year's stars

The three birds fitted with tracking backpacks in East Anglia this year include one male and two females which have been named Roger, Rowan and Rose. Roger is striking in appearance with piercing eyes and plain grey plumage contrasted with black wingtips and white underside characteristic of male Montagu’s harriers, whilst the females sport mottled brown feathers, a white rump and speckled eyes. 

Jim and Raymond release Rose after fitting her with a lightweight tracking device. Credit: RSPB

A close up of Rowan. Credit: RSPB

It has recently been discovered that Roger, named after the late Montagu’s harrier expert Roger Clarke, is actually supporting three different females with chicks! Whilst the two females Rowan and Rose continue to hunt increasingly further from their nest sites, in order to find food for their hungry fledglings as they prepare for autumn migration. 

Ben displays Roger's impressive plumage and pointed wings. Credit: RSPB

Keep up to date with the journey of these elegant birds of prey

Follow Rowan, Rose and Roger on their incredible journey from the end of summer as they leave for autumn migration, and hopefully many more journeys in years to come, via a satellite tracking map on the RSPB website.

Keep up-to-date with the latest from our Montagu’s harriers by following us on Twitter @UKmontagus

Get involved: report your Monty's sightings

A hotline opened by the RSPB earlier this summer for members of the public to report sightings of the striking, rare bird. “We’ve had dozens of reported sightings over the summer,” said Mark Thomas, “and one of them even lead to the discovery of a previously unknown pair, which is brilliant and shows what a valuable tool it is”. The hotline remains open and any sightings can be reported to 01767 693398 or emailed to wildlife@rspb.org.uk.

A pair of Monty's nest-building- the male in the foreground with nest material in his beak. Credit: Graham Catley

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