James Bray, our Bowland Project Officer has spotted Apollo at his wintering site.

This is a second installment in the story of Apollo, a male hen harrier that was fitted with a satellite tag in 2019 as part of the RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE project.

Following Apollo’s post-fledging journey of almost 1,000 miles from Lancashire down to Portugal, he has been in Extremadura in central Spain since the end of October 2019. As he has been remarkably settled for the past two months I could no longer resist the temptation to travel to Spain to see if I could catch up with a bird that my team of staff and volunteers spent months monitoring in the nest in northern England.

On my first full day in Extremadura I found the area that Apollo was roosting in fairly easily, but the terrain was very undulating so I thought I might struggle to see him well, if I did manage to see him at all. After spending half an hour watching and photographing a pair of great spotted cuckoos at close range I picked up a ringtail hen harrier soaring high in the sky. It then started dropping down to hunt, so with a bit of careful driving, I managed to get close to the harrier. As I took photos I could see that she wasn’t tagged and obviously wasn't Apollo, given that he is male. Even if it wasn’t Apollo, it was still very nice to see my first hen harrier in Spain.

The habitat where Apollo was spending his time (photo: James Bray)

I was back the next afternoon, and knowing the area much better, and having some good overnight location fixes from Apollo's tag, I thought I had a better-informed plan. However, I didn’t see any harriers until close to dark when two hen harriers popped up within a couple of hundred metres of me. A grey male and a ringtail, and straight away I could see that the ringtail was tagged – Apollo! I had my camera up but had lost Apollo, so I took a few photos at the grey male. Even the most surrealist of artists would blush at my attempts to claim it was a hen harrier, so I suspect that photos of a brown bird in that light would have been even more hopeless. But at least I had seen Apollo, and that evening’s rioja tasted very nice!

Apollo flying over the hills of Extremadura (Photo: James Bray)

Two mornings later I arrived back whilst it was still completely dark. A wait that was enlivened by calling quail and a hunting black-shouldered kite was finally rewarded as I picked up a harrier flying steadily away from where I was positioned. It was already at some height, and it was still fairly gloomy, but I was still able to see that the bird was tagged and that I was therefore watching Apollo again. I managed to get a few photos of him before I jumped into the car and drove along a road hoping to intercept him for better views. Disappointingly, I wasn’t able to relocate him, but on checking my camera I found that I had managed to get some photos showing the tag. Even if they aren’t the best photos of a harrier ever, at that moment, to me they were!

Checking the map, in a straight line he is (roughly!) 1,009 miles south of his nest site in Lancashire. It would have been nice to watch him hunt a bit, but his daytime fixes show that he is hunting a few kilometres from where he roosts, and given how mobile hunting harriers can be, it would have been a needle in a haystack job to find him during the day. 

Overjoyed at seeing Apollo, I spent the rest of the five days that I was in Spain birding, and saw some really amazing birdlife. In the late winter the plains are covered in singing calandra larks and corn buntings, amongst which I saw a few groups of great and little bustards. The world famous Monfrague National Park provided spectacular views of griffon and black vultures as well as a pair of endemic Spanish imperial eagles. And rather fittingly, the last bird that I photographed before heading home was a grey male hen harrier.

  

Other birds in a similar area to Apollo include corn buntings (left) and vultures (right) (Photos: James Bray)

Apollo’s story has been spectacular so far and we are all intrigued as to what his next move will be. Will he stay in Spain, his head turned by the locals and the sunny weather, or will he try to return to northern England? The return journey is very long and fraught with danger, as would be his return to northern England, but it would be a dream come true to see him skydancing over the Lancashire hills. As the days lengthen over the next few weeks he is likely to make his move.

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