James Bray, our Bowland Project Officer shares some exciting news about Apollo.

This summer we had five hen harrier nests in Bowland, with a total of 22 chicks successfully fledging from these nests. RSPB staff and volunteers working on the Hen Harrier LIFE project helped to monitor and protect these young birds and their parents. We worked alongside United Utilities’ tenants, who helped by carrying out some of the diversionary feeding at the nest where Apollo fledged.

Each day was nerve wracking but after two long months we were really pleased to see the chicks start to fledge, and just before they did, we fitted some of them with satellite tags so we could monitor where they went. We were not prepared for what we would see next as Apollo set off on a 1,000 mile journey!

Apollo as a chick

Like many young hen harriers, Apollo spent his first three months of life staying close to where he had fledged from his nest on the United Utilities Bowland estate in August 2019. I managed to catch sight of him one memorable afternoon in early October and was incredibly lucky to watch him for over fifteen minutes as he played in the wind with two of Bowland’s other young males.

Soon afterwards Apollo headed south, spending one night in the west Pennines then a week in the hills of mid Wales up until 19 October. We might have expected him to stay in this area for longer, but the very next day on 20 October his tag sent signals from Exmoor in Devon. He was not finished there though.

On the 21 October he crossed the English Channel and spent the night in Brittany, not too far from where one of his mother’s chicks from another brood in 2018 had spent the winter. Just when we thought he couldn’t get any more adventurous, Apollo proved us wrong.

We were all astounded when we looked at the data from his tag on 22 October, as it showed that he was still heading south, this time half-way across the Bay of Biscay. Messages continued to be transmitted by his tag and we had a very nervous 24 hours before we saw that Apollo had successfully completed the crossing and was now in northern Spain. The distance in a straight line from Brittany to where he made land in Spain is over 400 miles and he completed this journey, with the help of a light northerly wind, in less than a day. This is a spectacular piece of flying for a bird that was only a few months old on his first major outing.

Apollo spent a bit of time in northern Spain and by 26 October he continued his journey south and became the first of our tagged harriers to reach Portugal. By the end of October, he moved slightly east again and had clearly found somewhere that he liked as he has remained fairly settled in Extremadura in central Spain since then. This is an area that many British birders know well as it holds a wealth of very exciting wildlife, including montagu’s harriers in the spring and summer.

We are continuing to monitor the data coming in from Apollo’s tag, and we’re excited to see whether this remarkable bird will return to his native Bowland for the summer and if we might have a chance to see him sky-dancing above our hills again.

A map of Apollo's journey from Lancashire to Portugal

This story shows just how strong and resilient these birds can be, venturing into new territories at a very young age. However, our project team, and I’m sure many of you reading this, are all too aware of what fate could await Apollo if he does return home.

The use of satellite tagging technology to track movements of individuals provides powerful information to better understand species and their ecology, which can then inform conservation management. Think of the non-stop globe-traversing flights of bar-tailed godwits, or the revelations of the lives and journeys of British-breeding common cuckoos.

Satellite-tags fitted to hen harriers by the Hen Harrier LIFE project team provided information on the areas that these birds use, and this information will be vital in planning habitat management work to provide suitable habitat for hen harriers in both the breeding season and in winter.

However, tagging also allows us to identify the fates of our birds and shows that hen harrier continue to be killed illegally, most recently with the loss of Mary who was found poisoned in the Republic of Ireland. Apollo’s amazing journey reminds us how much we’d be missing if this killing continues.

A positive way of working in the uplands is possible, as the success in Bowland last year demonstrates. We are continuing to monitor the data coming in from Apollo’s tag, and we’re excited to see whether this remarkable bird will return to his native Bowland for the summer and if we might have a chance to see him skydancing above our hills again.

For now, we hope that Apollo continues to enjoy his winter in the Spanish sunshine.

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