RSPB Bowland's Project Officer, James Bray, talks us through Bowland's 2019 breeding season, the excitement of 5 rare hen harrier nests, and conditions for the volunteer team as they brave the hills!
For decades the Forest of Bowland was the most important site for breeding Hen Harriers in England. So much so, they were formally adopted as the logo of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In some years it was the only place in England that Hen Harriers bred, so their recent temporary loss as a breeding species* was particularly keenly felt by those with an interest in bird of prey conservation.
2018 was the best breeding season for Hen Harriers since the population crashed in 2012. We waited with baited breath for how 2019 would pan out, particularly as we know that a high percentage of young Hen Harriers disappear on driven grouse shooting estates across the country each winter (see here). My team of staff and volunteers, together with United Utilities staff and tenants, put everything into monitoring and protecting the birds when they’re here, but hen harriers travel widely and we can’t control what happens when they leave. Many of the chicks that fledged and left Bowland in 2018 did not survive the winter.
It is therefore tremendously exciting to announce that we now have chicks in five nests, and some those chicks have already taken their first flights.
Photo credit: Young hen harrier chicks in nest - Mick Demain.
As we have done in every year since the RSPB started working in Bowland at the start of the 1980s, our team of volunteers and staff have been monitoring and protecting the birds on the estate since the start of Spring, in partnership with the landowner United Utilities and their farming and sporting tenants.
In 2018 we had to deal with baking hot conditions (some members of the team took to lying in streams to cool down), whereas this year the weather has been a bit different. Warm calm spells have been rudely interrupted by spells of rain and cold wind, but our staff and volunteers have coped very well with the conditions.
Left: Keeping out of the rain and wind - Paul Thomas. Right: The United Utilities estate is also important for a range of other red-listed species such as Ring Ouzel, Cuckoo and Curlew - Mick Demain.
The harriers don’t appear to have been affected unduly by the weather either. We have been lucky that whilst there has been heavy rain, the downpours have been relatively short-lived, allowing the males plenty of time to hunt and feed their mates and chicks.
It is amazing how quickly the season passes. It does not seem long ago that the beautiful grey males were skydancing over the hills in successful attempts to attract mates. Now, some of the chicks are taking their first flights. For people who have spent every day of the last few months watching over the harriers, this is such a special moment.
We still have plenty of work to do to get through to the end of the season as well as to work to ensure that this year is the continuation of a recovery back to the population levels of the 2000s (over a dozen pairs nesting each year) and the population level that the Forest of Bowland Special Protection Area is designated for.
Photo credit: One of the nesting females - Jack Ashton Booth
I would like to say a huge thank you to the RSPB’s team of staff and volunteers who have put in a huge amount of work to monitor and protect the harriers so far, as well as to United Utilities staff, and their tenants for their amazing support for Hen Harriers and the RSPB’s work to protect them.
A final word - we would implore people who are visiting Bowland to look for its amazing wildlife to stay on the paths and tracks during the breeding season to avoid disturbing nesting birds. All of Bowland’s wonderful wildlife can be seen without stepping off a track.
* Harriers failed to breed in 2012, for the first time since they recolonised Bowland in the 1950s and didn’t return until 2015 when only a single chick was successfully reared from 7 nesting attempts. Hen Harriers then remained absent as a breeding species for a further two years until 2018.
It is so good to hear that there has been have a second year of successful nesting. Many thanks to those who have monitored the nests. I expect that the RSPB has satellite tagged as many birds as possible in order that we can gain a greater insight into their behaviour as well as monitor their lives and discourage the killing of raptors.
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