As spring arrives we’re asking you to keep your eyes to the skies and you may even spot some skydancing! Project Manager Dr Cathleen Thomas tells us how you can help us to protect hen harriers.
For anyone new to the blog, hen harriers are a bird of prey that breed in the uplands, principally on hills with heather moorland. They are the UK's most threatened bird of prey and on the brink of extinction as breeding bird in England, with just 9 successful nests in the whole of England in 2018 despite there being enough habitat to support over 300 pairs. So, the population size is a very long way from where it should be for a healthy, self-sustaining population.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that the main reason for the decline of our hen harriers is illegal killing by criminals in areas associated with intensive management of moorlands for grouse shooting. Just two weeks ago, the English government contributed to published research that found hen harriers were ten times more likely to die or disappear in areas of grouse moor, relative to areas with no grouse moor. This paper also found that 72% of their tagged birds were either definitely, or very likely to have been, illegally killed on grouse moors.
Here at the RSPB, the staff working on our Hen Harrier LIFE project carry out direct conservation action on the ground to protect and monitor nests. We work alongside local raptor workers, including those that are part of the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG). To be able to protect the birds we need to know where they are and that's why we're asking for your help.
As the weather is slowly warming up, the birds are becoming more visible as they start long journeys moving away from their winter roosting grounds and towards their summer breeding grounds. They will be moving into areas of heather moorlands in places like the North Pennines and the Forest of Bowland.
Hen harrier are birds of prey with strong talons and a curved beak. They are a medium-sized bird of prey, smaller than an eagle and similar in size to a buzzard. Female hen harriers have brown and white feathers that camouflage them when they nest on the ground amongst the heather. They have horizontal stripes on their tails and a patch of white just above it. Males are slightly smaller and ash grey with black wing tips. Both have a round, owl-like face and a wingspan of just under a metre.
A female hen harrier with mottled brown feathers and a barred tail (photo by Steve Knell, RSPB-IMAGES)
In the spring, the male hen harrier performs a spectacular courtship display to attract a female, known as skydancing. The bird sweeps and somersaults, climbing high in the air before plunging to the ground and then pulling up just before he hits it! He twists and turns, all to impress the female and it should be a common sight on our hills and moorland in the spring.
A grey male hen harrier (photo by Andy Hay, RSPB-IMAGES)
If anyone spots a hen harrier, skydancing or otherwise, please make a note of the date, time and location with a 6-figure grid reference if possible. A description of what the bird was doing is also helpful. Sightings can be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can call us on 0845 460 0121.
Please help us to keep these birds safe this summer.
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