Archive for the ‘RSPB Hen Harrier Project’ Category

Blog Post: First hen harriers tagged as part of the LIFE+ project

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015
  Bea Ayling (Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project Manager) In June and July, a number of hen harrier chicks across England and Scotland were satellite tagged as part of the RSPB’s new Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project. The project seeks to better understand the movements of these magnificent birds to help identify areas where they are most at risk.. This need became particularly pertinent in the 2015 breeding season when 5 nests failed in northern England due to the well-publicised, unexplained disappearances of the healthy male adult birds. As the new Project Manager (covering for Blánaid while she is off enjoying her own brood), I am on tenterhooks to see how the 2015 breeding season pans out having started the role smack bang in the middle. I am particularly excited about being able to track our birds online!  A couple of the project’s satellite tagged birds will be made public here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife/ . The latest tag went on a female chick on the Isle of Man, named Hetty. It’ll be fascinating to see where she disperses to for the winter as hen harriers are known to range far and wide. Maybe she will encounter some of our other tagged birds across the sea in England and Scotland! Maps of her movements should be available on the website in the next few weeks. Hetty and her brother prior to ringing and tagging. Photo credit: John Hellowell I really hope that allowing the public to follow our tagged birds’ helps raise awareness and understanding of hen harriers, encouraging recognition that hen harriers are an intrinsic part of the UK’s uplands, and that we’re all responsible for their protection.  

Blog Post: Jenn’s Big Bird Bungee Jump

Thursday, July 16th, 2015
On Saturday 8 August, RSPB staff member Jenn Lane is doing a bungee jump to raise money for hen harriers in Bowland. Here she explains why. Ever since I heard about the plight of the hen harrier, I’ve been keen to do my bit. My day job for the RSPB is working as an administrator in our Lancaster office, however, every year we get the chance to volunteer for a day elsewhere in the organisation. In June I used this opportunity to take part in a hen harrier nest watch in Bowland. Following the disappearances of four males from active nests, I was protecting the last remaining one in the area.  Seeing the pair hunt against the hillside was a moving experience and I realised the full extent of what these birds are up against.  I decided I really wanted to raise the profile of this wonderful bird and what better way to do it than jumping 300ft through the air.   Jenn Lane The RSPB is doing all it can to help the hen harrier breed successfully and thrive once again in the face of so many obstacles. Please donate to my JustGiving page today and help save hen harriers from the brink of extinction. https://www.justgiving.com/Jennifer-Lane2/

Comment on Wanted: Your thoughts on our new Skydancer film

Thursday, May 28th, 2015
Anything that draws attention to the plight of these fantastic birds,along with other raptors,must be welcomed with open arms.Our local club's recording area covers a large part of the "Yorkshire black hole for raptors" and we worry every time we get a report of Hen Harriers seen in the area.Not sure what the solution is but our members do keep our eyes and ears open when out on the local moors.

Blog Post: Wanted: Your thoughts on our new Skydancer film

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
If you haven’t already seen our new Skydancer film, please a spare 10 minutes and watch it here . Made by Northumberland-based Haltwhistle Film Project , we hope it offers an engaging and inspiring introduction to hen harriers and the challenges they face. Filmed in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Derbyshire, the work features interviews from all sides of the hen harrier debate, as well as animations and scenes from last year’s Hen Harrier Day. We would really like to know what you think of the film. Love it or hate it, please email your thoughts to julie.chrisp@rspb.org.uk .  We are going to evaluate the whole Skydancer project later this year and your views will feed into our final report.  

Blog Post: Introducing James Bray

Monday, March 9th, 2015
This week we hear from the newest member of the Skydancer team who tells us a bit about himself and his new role, as well as giving us an update on our sat-tagged birds, Burt and Highlander. Hello. My name is James Bray and I have just started as the RSPB’s Bowland Project Officer, and my role will be to help monitor and protect Bowland’s birds of prey. As Bowland has been so important for hen harriers in England over the years, this will be very exciting and challenging work. However, I am very fortunate to be joining an incredibly dedicated and skilled team of volunteers and staff from a range of different organisations. I have been made to feel very welcome and have been really impressed with the expertise and enthusiasm that I have encountered. I previously worked for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Scotland taking part in a varied range of research projects in a range of habitats and locations. This included monitoring the wader-filled fields of the machair on the Outer Hebrides, and carrying out bird surveys on the high tops of the Cairngorms. One thing that I will not miss is the sitka spruce plantations that we occasionally had to survey – needles is a very appropriate term. I was also responsible for BTO Scotland’s training programme, running bird identification and surveying courses for volunteers, and encouraging more people to take part in bird surveying and monitoring. On my second day of work here, my colleague Gavin Thomas gave me a great introduction to Bowland by taking me to monitor a harrier roost on the edge of Bowland. Clear skies and calm conditions provided beautiful conditions and we were soon watching a couple of ringtail hen harriers drifting over the grassy slopes. I never tire of watching harriers, they are endlessly fascinating as they rock slowly from side to side, flying low over moorland, with bursts of acceleration or sudden stalls quickly followed by a drop to the ground. With a Barn Owl quartering the hillside in the background, my trip out with Gavin was a sensational way to start my time in Bowland. These two photos, taken by a nest camera at one of the successful nests on the United Utilities Bowland estate last year, provide some idea of how spectacular these birds are.     Meanwhile, Burt and Highlander, both seem to have taken a liking to their wintering grounds as they are still in the same areas that they have been in since before Christmas, with Highlander on the south-east Lancashire / Yorkshire border, and Burt in Cumbria. It is likely that the relatively mild winter has allowed good numbers of voles to survive in these areas, providing plenty of food for these two birds. It is great to see these two young birds doing so well in their first winter as it is in this period that natural mortality is usually at its greatest. This map shows that their autumn wanderings have given way to a more sedentary period, although they do cover relatively large areas within their wintering grounds.   As we look forward a month or two, it is possible that both birds will attempt to breed this year, particularly as so much suitable habitat is available. This is in part due to the rather disgraceful fact that that there are so few hen harriers left in England. As I join the work to try to bring hen harriers back from the brink in England, let’s hope that Burt and Highlander continue to thrive and play a practical part in the species’ future. In the meantime should you be enjoying an early spring foray into the countryside and are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please report it to the hen harrier hotline at henharriers@rspb.org.uk  or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.

Blog Post: LIFE support for hen harriers – 2015 and beyond

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
Suddenly it’s March (where did February go??), which means that any moment now the breeding season will begin in earnest.  And of course the big question is hanging in the air is what will this year hold for hen harriers? I both love and hate this time of year – so much hope, so much possibility, and yet so much trepidation. For the last three seasons, the award-winning Skydancer Project has funded and coordinated RSPB’s hen harrier monitoring and nest protection work in the north of England, and I’m delighted to say that this year, it’s going to be getting an extra boost. Our new Hen Harrier LIFE Project represents an exciting and ambitious, five-year programme of hen harrier conservation, combining direct conservation action with community engagement and awareness-raising measures, to build on and extend the work of Skydancer, both into the future, to 2019, and geographically into southern and eastern Scotland. We talk a lot about hen harriers in England but the reality is that there’s nothing separating hen harriers here from those in Scotland, Wales, or to a certain extent, Ireland or the Isle of Man. Bowland Betty showed us just how wide-ranging hen harriers can be and a few birds have even been tracked as far as France or Spain . Essentially, anything that affects hen harriers in one part of their range is likely to affect the population as a whole, and as birds don’t recognise boundaries, neither should we. The Hen Harrier LIFE Project is unique in being the first truly cross-border conservation initiative for this species. The LIFE Project will focus on seven Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated for breeding hen harriers, two in England and five in Scotland, illustrated below. Although these SPA designations constitute a legally binding government obligation to maintain favourable conservation status, it's worth noting that not one of those listed is currently meeting its designation criteria for hen harriers. It stands to reason that to protect hen harriers inside SPAs, we need to protect them outside SPAs. By funding satellite tags, the LIFE project will enable us to follow these birds wherever they go, facilitating better understanding of their movements and helping to identify where they’re most vulnerable. A few of these tagged birds will be made public each year and you’ll be able to follow their incredible journeys through an interactive map on our project website (watch this space ). By telling these stories, we hope to raise awareness and understanding of  hen harriers, encouraging recognition that these magnificent birds "belong" to all of us, and we are all responsible for their protection. Speaking of which, the LIFE project will be aiding direct protection of hen harrier nests and roosts by providing access to remote cameras and other vital monitoring equipment. We’ll also be working closely with the Northern England Raptor Forum (NERF) and Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) to monitor hen harriers populations throughout both breeding and wintering seasons. The project has employed two new Assistant Investigations Officers to focus on hen harriers and the uplands, who will work closely with police and statutory bodies to help address the ongoing issue of illegal persecution and disturbance. It's a universal truth that all good things must come to an end but thanks to LIFE, Skydancer's fantastic community engagement work won’t just fade away when the project finishes in September. The LIFE Project will continue key elements of this work, working with schools, local community groups, and gamekeeping colleges to raise awareness and build support for hen harrier conservation in areas where these birds should be. We’ll particularly be looking for opportunities to work positively with landowners to champion best practice for hen harriers where it occurs. Finally, if Hen Harrier Day last year has taught us anything, it’s that the issue of hen harrier conservation is bigger than any one organisation. So with this in mind, the LIFE project is already working to build links with other hen harrier projects such as Natural England’s Hen Harrier Recovery Project , the PAWS Heads Up for Harriers scheme , and the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project ; not to mention the National Parks and AONBs, and other conservation organisations; to develop a coherent conservation network for hen harriers across the project areas. Last year was a big one for hen harriers in England (see  here , here , here , and here ), placing this vulnerable bird of prey firmly in the political spotlight. Now, with the deadline for government pre-election shutdown only a few weeks away, it remains to be seen whether any decisions will be made on Defra's proposed Hen Harrier Action Plan (see here for RSPB's stance). Whatever the outcome, both Skydancer and the Hen Harrier LIFE Project stand as clear demonstrations of RSPB's commitment to securing a sustainable future for hen harriers and our willingness to work positively and openly with anyone who feels the same. So here's to 2015 and whatever the breeding season may bring - we're ready for it. For more information on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife

Blog Post: The fantastic fundraising efforts of the Liverpool Liverbirds

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015
Recently, I’ve been hearing about the fantastic fundraising efforts of the Liverpool Liverbirds RSPB Wildlife Explorers.  Leader Elaine Caldwell explains:  “Back in September we held a meeting all about hen harriers to raise awareness about these beautiful birds and the problems they are facing, what the RSPB are doing, and what we as a group could do, to help”.  And help they have.  To raise awareness, Tessa made leaflets about hen harriers and sold them to raise £23.44.  Louis, aged 10, and Carys, aged 8, (both pictured below) held a homemade cake sale in their front garden and raised £64.52. Louis said “I really enjoyed selling cakes to give money to a good cause” .  Carys agreed: “It was great fun doing our cake sale for the hen harriers and we sold all our cakes.”  To collect the money from their fundraising exploits, the group even decorated their own homemade collection tins.   Wildlife Explorer member Joel, aged 10, explains why he wanted to fundraise for hen harriers. “When I heard about hen harriers being shot and killed I wanted to do something to help before they are extinct.  I did a sponsored bike ride with my brother Rafferty (aged 7) and we raised some money to send in.”  Joel and Rafferty (pictured with their homemade collection tins above) rode over 15 miles between them, and raised £69.50.  John did a combination of bike riding and cake selling at school and raised £40. The group have also made a poster with hen harrier facts, played Skydancing games, and made hen harrier habitat collages: Liverpool Liverbirds have so far raised over £200, a brilliant achievement! Leader Elaine said: “We have been staggered by the money they have raised.  Their activities also helped spread the word about the plight of hen harriers among family, friends, neighbours and classmates, so a great effort and great results all round.  We are really proud of their achievements.  T he fact they really got behind the campaign in such a big way shows that young people care about nature and are just as passionate about protecting it for the future too. This a great message for us adults to hear”. I couldn’t have put it better myself, well done and a big thank you to the Liverpool Liverbirds - you are all true Hen Harrier Heroes. The Liverpool Liverbirds aren’t the only Wildlife Explorers group who’ve been fundraising for hen harriers - both Macclesfield and Leighton Moss RSPB Wildlife Explorers have too.  I’ll tell you more about that soon. So, this is the final year of Skydancer and we have lots of great things coming up that I’m really looking forward to telling you about, but what’s happening after Skydancer?  Well, let me set the scene, Blánaid Denman has moved on to project manage a new and exciting hen harrier project funded through LIFE, and with that to whet your appetite I’ll leave Blánaid to tell you more in the next Skydancer blog...

Comment on Introducing Julie Chrisp

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015
That drawing of a hen harrier is amazing - it's staggering to think that someone of only 8 or 9 years old produced that!   I hope the job goes really well, Julie.  Looking forward to the next blog.

Blog Post: Introducing Julie Chrisp

Monday, February 9th, 2015
Hi everyone. This is my first outing on the Skydancer blog so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Julie Chrisp and I have recently started in post as Engagement Officer with Skydancer.  I am absolutely delighted to be joining the team - I’m not completely new to Skydancer, I was involved during the development phase of the project - so it’s great to be back to take Skydancer full circle.      I started just before Christmas, taking over from Blánaid Denman who had worked in the role since the beginning of Skydancer in 2011 - her time with the project culminating in Skydancer winning Best Education Project in the National Lottery Awards 2014. This was a fantastic achievement by Blánaid and the team and quite some shoes for me to fill.   Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be posting regular blogs to keep you up to date with all the exciting community engagement work we’ll be doing through Skydancer with schools, agricultural colleges, community groups and the wider public and telling you all about the fantastic efforts and activities people are undertaking to help hen harriers.   My first official duty as Skydancer Engagement Officer was to issue Springfields First School Nature Club, near Stoke-on-Trent, with their Hen Harrier Hero Awards .  21 children from year four were presented with their certificates in a special assembly before Christmas.  The children also donated their Nature Club subscription to the Hen Harrier Appeal .      To gain their Hen Harrier Hero award the group took part in various hen harrier-themed activities.  They drew pictures, wrote stories and poems, made hen harrier posters with five facts about hen harriers that they pledged to show to at least five people. They investigated bird of prey food chains plus the group even staged their own assembly, informing the rest of the school and year four parents about hen harriers.  A fantastic effort I’m sure you’ll agree. Image of a female hen harrier   Bird of prey food chain Next time, I'll be blogging about the amazing work of the Liverpool Liverbirds RSPB Wildlife Explorers.

Blog Post: Ghosts of the Moors

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015
This week we welcome guest blogger Findlay Wilde. A passionate young conservationist, Findlay has spent the past year campaigning for hen harriers. Here, he explains how he first got interested in the bird of prey and what he has been doing to help the species.  Hen harriers.  Aren’t they just magnificent?  Whenever I see one, I feel totally “raptorvated”.  I can still remember the first time I ever saw a hen harrier. I was out on the North Wales moors. The rain splattered my face and the low cloud limited my views over the vast landscape.  Despite the rain, I resolved to walk even further until a grey ghost, elegant and effortless, glided past me within 10 metres of where I stood. I gazed at it for as long as I could, before it was a distant speck, gliding easily on the wind, appearing and reappearing through the sloping hills. I was simply captivated and inspired by such a spectacle of nature.   As a young conservationist, I understand that there are huge problems facing British wildlife. One of these problems is the illegal persecution of raptors, and especially of hen harriers. As more and more information was being shared by the likes of the RSPB, Mark Avery, Chris Packham and Birders Against Wildlife Crime about the declines in our breeding hen harrier population, I knew that this was my next project. I made it my goal to work hard to raise awareness and to try to reach the people who had never even heard of a hen harrier.  After experiencing such a wonderful bird out in the wild, it is horrible to think about how they are being purposely killed.  I continued to learn all about hen harriers, the good and the bad.  People talked about how positive it was to have four breeding pairs in England in 2014 after having none in 2013. But our uplands should support more that 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers, so four pairs is just not acceptable.   People I meet at conferences, talks, reserves and events frequently ask why I think saving our English hen harriers is so important.  The answer is simple; hen harriers have every right to be dancing in our skies and we have to protect them. I can't understand how people can allow extinction to take place right on their doorstep and not do anything about it. In 2014, I began “Project Harry” to help the RSPB’s Skydancer project. Harry, a 6ft hen harrier, started off as a tiny thought in the back of my mind. He was built and bought to life for a local scarecrow competition in our village. Harry spent four weeks in our living room while his feathers were drying and he then he spent another four weeks on the roof of our house, number 52 in the scarecrow competition.  There was a poster put up below him, telling people all about the persecution of raptors.  Findlay with Harry the Hen Harrier I quickly realised that Harry was reaching people who hadn’t heard of a hen harrier before and who were shocked to hear about the near extinction of Harry’s English relatives. Harry won the competition and the prize money was given straight to Skydancer.  At this point though, I had no idea how amazing the journey I was going to have with Harry would be. On 10 th August 2014, I took Harry to the first ever Hen Harrier Day, organised by Mark Avery, Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Chris Packham in the Peak District.  It was amazing to see 570 people out in driving rain, coming together to speak out against wildlife crime.  Since then, Harry has been to the Rutland Birdfair on the Wildlife Crime Prevention stand, raising even more public awareness. Visitors to the fair were asked to take selfies with Harry and post them on Twitter to keep hen harriers in everyone’s hearts.   Findlay with Chris Packham at Hen Harrier Day Harry has also been to BBC Autumnwatch, appearing on Autumnwatch Extra.  He was again a great focal point, and it was great for me to be able to talk about hen harriers, persecution and their declines.  Currently, Harry is located at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, where he is staying for the rest of the hen harrier winter roost.  He is on display for all visitors to see, and every week more Harry selfies appear on Twitter.  The RSPB do monthly Skydancers on the Dee events throughout winter to raise awareness about hen harriers.  On these days, I get up full of enthusiasm and head off to volunteer with the RSPB’s Dan Trotman and his team. During the afternoon we talk to passersby about hen harriers and, when possible, show the birds to them through the scopes.  I really enjoy conversations with all these different people and love watching their faces when they see a quartering raptor close up for the first time.  Sometimes though, I admit I get a bit distracted watching across the marsh myself. Hen harrier on the Dee In December, I used a picture of Harry with a snowy background and made Wishing You A Harry Christmas cards. 500 cards were sold in just two weeks and this raised another £525 for Skydancer. More importantly, it got the hen harrier story in to 500 homes over Christmas. Harry was just one small project, but he has made a very big impact. For a while, social media was filled with images of this 6ft imposing giant. I like to think that Harry has inspired people, and that some of them will do something positive to help protect our wildlife.  This started out as just a small project and look how it’s turned out. Imagine if we did a larger-scale project; imagine if we all worked on something huge together. I have an idea or two of course! I am not sure what will happen to Harry after his winter roost; I hope he can continue to raise awareness, but I am bursting with great new ideas for the future. I feel more and more confident that all of us; NGOs and other organisations can work together to change things. I for one can’t wait to be a part of the movement making a positive difference and filling the skies with dancers. Read Findlay’s regular blog at http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/ Follow Findlay on Twitter: https://twitter.com/wildeaboutbirds

Blog Post: Happy New Year from Bowland

Monday, January 12th, 2015
With little movement from Burt and Highlander since my last update (still residing in North Cumbria and the South Pennines respectively), this blog is simply an excuse to share some photographs (all my own unless stated otherwise) and experiences with you of a place that is really special to me. I’m Lancashire born and bred and always knew Bowland as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers in England. It’s a misguided view that I’ve since revised, as ‘the place’ for breeding hen harriers should of course, be our uplands as a whole. So here’s my experiences of just one small corner of our uplands over a few months in the spring and summer a few years ago.... When I started work for the RSPB in April 2005 little did I know that the fifteen pairs of hen harriers that nested in Bowland that year would soon be effectively wiped out. Shocking isn’t it, from fifteen pairs to extinction in less than ten years. My first contract was a joy, essentially I was being paid to go birding, well spend four months surveying and mapping the breeding birds on the United Utilities Bowland Estate to be exact. I’d think nothing of seeing half a dozen hen harriers in a day whilst surveying the moors and on one particularly memorable morning that April, I lay in the heather watching two stunning male harriers skydancing whilst three ringtails quartered the moors below. Spending four months combing 42 square kilometres of the estate gave me such an insight into how special these upland areas are for wildlife. No field guides, video clips, CDs of bird calls, photographs nor any other medium comes close to being in the thick of the action, and I learnt so, so much. As well as daily multiple hen harrier encounters, merlins and peregrines were frequently seen, I literally stumbled on my first ever short eared owl nest, the adult flying up from under my feet leaving three young owlets staring me out. They won. The nest subsequently went on to fledge three healthy shorties. It’s also the first time I experienced their spectacular wing clapping display flights. Short-eared owlets on the United Utilities Bowland Estate. Curlews were widespread and as well as frequent encounters with their sprinting chicks (they’re all leg for the first couple of weeks), provided for me what is the ultimate soundtrack to our uplands, that beautiful, eerie, plaintive, bubbling call that accompanies their parachuting song flight that just can’t be beaten. I challenge anyone to lay amongst the heather on a crisp spring morning taking in the stunning landscape whilst your ears are filled with that most atmospheric of sounds and not be moved by it. It simply lifts the soul. Curlew chick. Golden Plover in breeding plumage. I’d also share my ‘office’ with golden plovers on the high plateaus, resplendent in their black, white and gold spangled finery, a bird transformed from the altogether duller subdued golden browns of winter. The song of ring ouzels would echo around the valleys carrying far and wide and making it difficult to pinpoint the songster, usually perched in isolated rowans on the hillsides whilst whinchats, newly arrived from their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, flitted around areas of bracken setting up territories where the resident and closely related stonechats would allow. Incessant singing skylarks competed with the curlews for the audio crown and ‘ tseep, tseep ’ing meadow pipits were everywhere, scattering from tussocks on every transect I walked, occasionally a bird burst from underfoot in an awkward low, almost scrambling flight across the top of the vegetation with tail spread. I quickly learnt that this behaviour meant the bird had come off a nest and was attempting to get me to follow it – a distraction display to lead me away from the nest. Meadow Pipit nestlings With the meadow pipits providing food for harriers and merlins, the insect life that fed the pipits was there in abundance to the point that every footstep seemed to be onto moving ground, a tide of spiders scuttling out of the way as I placed my feet between tussocks of cotton grass, various mosses, bog asphodel and other-worldly carnivorous sundews. Green hairstreak butterflies, so small and inconspicuous amongst the bilberry and almost impossible to follow in flight were simply exquisite at close range when found motionless, still lethargic in the early morning mists before they warmed up enough to take flight. Golden-ringed dragonflies, our largest species, were an unexpected treat found hawking over some of the smaller rocky streams flowing down the moorland valleys. My steps became a little more tentative after the morning I met a hissing adder in one of the boggier valley bottoms. I could go on for hours and hours but you get the idea, the estate teems with wildlife and for much of the spring and summer I pretty much had it to myself. Wherever they were, the general public just didn’t know what they were missing. Bog Asphodel, Round-leaved Sundew, Green Hairstreak, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Adder. With the wider ecosystem services that such areas provide whether that be carbon storage, flood prevention, recreational walking, hiking, cycling or just taking in the spectacular sights and sounds, it just seems bizarre, selfish perhaps, that anyone would want to damage such places. Not all of our uplands are as diverse as this, especially where the management practises are geared towards intensive production of thousands of red grouse for driven shooting.   The United Utilities Bowland Estate....... ....and an intensive driven grouse moor in Scotland In their own right, our uplands deserve the domestic and international protection they are afforded. Whether it is conserving hen harriers or restoring areas of degraded peat, the uplands remain a high priority for the RSPB and other organisations going in to 2015. It is essential that their protection and that of the internationally important habitats and species they support is maintained and effectively enforced. That way, the natural wonders I was privileged to spend the spring and summer of 2005 with, will be available to everybody, wherever they are, for generations to come. So for me, nearly ten years on from my first steps into Bowland’s magical moors, I saw 2014 as a turning point. Whether it was the return of successfully breeding hen harriers to England, the inspiration that was Hen Harrier Day, or Skydancer winning the National Lottery Best Education Project Award, the year’s many highlights have provided us with many positives to build on in 2015. I begin the year with real optimism, so happy new year Skydancer followers, enjoy the photos and let’s make 2015 even better!

Blog Post: Special birds in special places

Monday, December 22nd, 2014
Well, after barely any movement from Highlander in recent weeks, she’s ‘done a Burt’ and gone exploring. On 4 th December she headed about eight kilometres north of her usual haunt and roosted on the Pennine fringe east of Colne. Rather than continuing north the following morning she headed west towards the coast and took in the area around the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere on the Lancashire plain. I contacted a couple of the staff there to see if there had been any harrier sightings over that weekend but it seems nobody managed to connect with her. She was still in the area early afternoon of 7 th December but she was heading back east and had arrived back in her usual South Pennines haunt by 14:58 – a distance of over 50 kilometres covered in under two hours. Highlander's movements in December So despite Highlander giving everyone the slip at Martin Mere, Burt has given himself up again in recent weeks. After his trip to Dumfries and Galloway, he was spotted by none other than Norman Holton, our RSPB Senior Sites Manager for Cumbria at our Campfield Marsh  reserve on the Solway. On the morning of the 2 nd December, Norm was doing some work in the eastern part of the reserve and was treated to a sighting of a ringtail harrier hunting close by. He was sharp eyed enough to notice that it was satellite tagged and contacted the Skydancer team to find out where the bird had originated from. At the time Norm saw him, Burt was on his way back south, to an area of north Cumbria where he spent a week or so in late November. He’s remained there, not too far from Bassenthwaite since. Burt's movements in December So that’s the latest update on Burt and Highlander’s travels and as 2014 comes to an end, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at where these tagged harriers have been spending much of their time since they fledged from their Bowland Fells nests over five months ago. Sadly Sky and Hope were not able to explore any further than their natal areas due to their untimely disappearances back in September, but their siblings, Highlander and Burt, have been able to spread their wings as their confidence and wandering instincts have developed. Between them they’ve graced six counties in two countries, exploring the upland landscapes of Dumfries and Galloway, the Yorkshire Dales, South Pennines and the Cumbrian Fells. When they’ve spent time away from the uplands, the Solway, the Ribble Estuary and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Martin Mere have all been visited by these two very special raptors. In case you hadn’t already noticed, all the areas I listed above have something in common. They are all landscapes or sites which have been afforded special protection from statutory designations. From the Bowland Fells Special Protection Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest where they were born, to the Special Area of Conservation of the Solway and Ramsar site of Martin Mere, these are all areas which are nationally or internationally recognised for their important habitats and species. The Bowland Fells Special Protection Area (SPA) - a special place so designated for its breeding hen harriers - Gavin Thomas RSPB Despite few of these being specifically designated for hen harriers it just underlines how important these protected areas as a whole are for our rarest wildlife. Their attractiveness was clearly demonstrated by Highlander for example when she wandered away from the South Pennines – she’d headed straight to Martin Mere, a wetland oasis within the agriculturally improved landscape of the west Lancashire Plain. Similarly when Burt left Bowland, he headed straight to the multi-designated landscape that is the Ribble Estuary before heading north to the Cumbrian Fells, the Solway and southern Scotland. We’re all too aware of the direct threats to our hen harriers but what about the indirect ones? At a time when it seems that nature as a whole is being given a pretty poor deal, it’s concerning that the very legislation that underpins the protection of these special places, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, are now under review. Whether it’s protected sites, specific conservation measures for species or wider countryside initiatives such as the agri-environment schemes that are supporting farmers’ efforts in managing areas of their farms for wildlife; it is all potentially under threat from a review of the legislation. You can read more about this  here on our conservation director's blog.  So if you care about nature and special places then it’s well worth keeping an eye on this review and making sure you have your say, especially at a time when the UK Government seems to be giving nature short shrift. Nature, including hen harriers and the habitats they depend on, needs a voice, therefore it is up to us all to ensure that protecting nature is firmly on the agenda of the decision makers. To help this happen click here . In the meantime should you be enjoying a festive foray into the countryside and are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please report it to the hen harrier hotline at  henharriers@rspb.org.uk  or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.

Blog Post: Burt’s on the move.

Friday, December 5th, 2014
Autumn and early winter is a great time to look for hen harriers in England. With so few nesting attempts in the country and so few birds out there in summer despite the hundreds of square miles of suitable habitat, the autumn sees numbers swell as harriers begin to disperse from elsewhere. As well as birds from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, harriers are also arriving from abroad. The east coast of England is a particularly good area to encounter them and there have been multiple sightings in recent weeks. It’s possible some of these birds have originated from the near continent, Sweden and Finland for example but without recovering a ringed bird or seeing a bird fitted with wing tags it’s impossible to know for sure. This is where satellite tagging is so useful in learning more about the detailed movements of these birds. With a Scottish tagged bird already making it to northern France, we’ve been hoping our tagged Bowland birds might give the Scottish bird a run for her money. Highlander however has a long way to go to even come close as she seems to have taken on Burt’s sedentary nature and remains faithful to the Pennine moors between Burnley and Bradford. Burt however is now proving quite mobile and has already taken in a new country, Scotland to be precise. Since my last update, when one of our volunteers managed to ‘twitch’ Burt leaving a roost site in Bowland after his satellite tag gave us some fantastic location data, Burt has been on the move. On 18 November, another great series of fixes placed him on the north Ribble marshes where he roosted overnight. These marshes are a fantastic place for wildlife and it’s likely Burt would have found a plentiful food source here in the rough grassland and saltmarsh, an area where many finches, buntings, pipits and larks overwinter and doubtless plenty of small rodents are present. In fact Burt wasn’t the only hen harrier in the area at the time, as on the opposite side of the estuary, a stunning adult male bird was delighting visitors to our Marshside reserve . It seems Burt escaped their attentions though! Ringtail hen harrier hunting passerines over saltmarsh - thanks to Andy Davis for the cracking pic! Despite the estuary’s appeal, Burt didn’t linger and headed up to northern Cumbria where he spent a week on the northern fringe of the Lake District between Carlisle and Bassenthwaite. His next foray was even further north across the border into southern Scotland where he found an area of grass-dominated moorland and conifer plantations west of the M74 near Moffat to his liking. It would be interesting to know whether he encountered any other harriers in this part of the world as he wasn’t too far away from Langholm Moor where a far more natural population of hen harriers successfully nested this year – no fewer than 47 young fledged from 12 nests to be exact! You can find out here exactly why hen harriers are doing so well on this particular moor. Burt’s movements over the past few weeks So as November gave way to December, Burt remained north of the border. Any guesses where he’ll go next? Will he continue north and follow the remarkable track taken by the sadly late Bowland Betty , or will cooler weather halt his travels further north? Will he head south and if so how far? He’s got some way to go if he wants to match the travels of this  remarkable hen harrier for starters. I’ll keep you informed.... If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at henharriers@rspb.org.uk or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.

Blog Post: The Dee’s the place to be

Friday, November 28th, 2014
I was only a kid, ten or eleven I think, but I can still picture it now – my first ever hen harrier. My mum used to take me there on Sunday afternoons hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird I’d dreamt about seeing in real life after drooling over the plates of it in my Mitchell Beazley bird book, a present given to me by my mum and dad for my eighth birthday. I still own and treasure that book. Hen Harrier plate in my treasured Mitchell Beazley book. It was a red-letter day putting that tick next to it! Less than an hour from my inner city Liverpool home I’d stand there gazing out over what seemed like another world - the Welsh mountains providing the backdrop to a seemingly vast, wild place that was devoid of people and teeming with birds. After several failed attempts, that first sighting was just so, so special. Those slim wings and long tail just weren’t right for a buzzard, it wasn’t flying right and the tail had striking thick dark bars. Then a sharp twist in the air as it flushed a skylark out the marsh and there it was, the characteristic flash of a white rump. I’d seen my first hen harrier. I was simply elated as I watched the bird for several minutes as it hunted effortlessly over the saltmarsh in the mid-winter, late afternoon gloom. That bird over that habitat underlined to me even then what a fantastic place it was. I was at the RSPB’s Dee Estuary reserve in Cheshire. So here’s a guest blog from a lucky lad called Dan Trotman, who’s the Visitor Development Officer on that very reserve where I first caught the hen harrier bug: ‘One memory that has stuck with me from my early days at the Dee Estuary reserve is my maiden voyage to Parkgate with my manager in September 2010. We were hoping that I’d see my first ever hen harrier. At the time, I didn’t quite appreciate how significant it would have been had we caught sight of the lone ringtail, the only one that had so far returned to the marshes after the breeding season that summer. Four years on, I need no reminding how lucky I am to have the opportunity to see them regularly on the Dee every winter. It’s likely that the birds we see here are from the nearby Welsh breeding population, as well as further afield, but this is no compensation for their shocking demise in the uplands of England where they should be present in their hundreds. The vast saltmarsh off Parkgate promenade is well-known as a winter roost site for hen harriers. Since the late 1980s, the Dee Estuary RSPB team have delivered regular events to showcase these spectacular raptors and the other birds of prey such as peregrines and merlins that grace the reserve in the winter months. The opening of the new Burton Mere Wetlands visitor facilities in 2011 was intended to make the wildlife spectacle of the wider estuary more accessible to the public, and one of the species that has delighted visitors most in the winter months is the hen harrier. Over the coming months we are running Skydancers on the Dee , a series of events aimed inspiring people about these amazing birds and highlighting their plight. Most people have never seen a hen harrier but we can change that here! So far this autumn, a total of three hen harriers have been on the Dee; one grey adult male, who has moved on after a brief stay in October, and two ringtails that are still present and thrilling visitors to our Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on a daily basis. This winter has so far been very mild so hopefully, more harriers will arrive, should the winter weather harden. True to the unpredictable nature of wildlife, rather than using their traditional roost on the saltmarsh off Parkgate, one of the ringtails appears to have been roosting at our Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on a few occasions. One of the two juvenile marsh harriers that are currently also on the reserve is doing likewise – in fact it’s a novelty for us to have marsh harriers so late in the year and to see both species in the air together. The harriers have also roosted on Burton Marsh some nights so it seems that you have to be in the right place at the right time this winter! Our team is keeping close tabs on these birds so whether they are at Parkgate, Burton Marsh or Burton Mere Wetlands we’ll be doing our best to ensure visitors to the Dee are rewarded with a sighting. So why not join us this Sunday, 30 November, between noon and dusk to learn more about these birds and the Skydancer project. There are harriers around so you’ve every chance of seeing one of these fantastic birds hunting over the marsh and hopefully dropping into roost around sunset. If you can’t make it this Sunday, there are further events on the Dee each month until March. For full details, click here .

Blog Post: Scottish hen harrier heads to France

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
Thanks to a satellite tag and an eagle-eyed photographer, a young hen harrier from southwest Scotland has recently been tracked to our Wallasea Wetlands reserve in southern England. However, that wasn't far enough apparently, as the intrepid traveler has now migrated all the way to France! Read more about this fascinating journey on our Rainham Marshes blog here . Photo of sat-tagged hen harrier, Wallasea Wetlands, 2014 (c) Tony Orwell

Blog Post: Breakfast with Burt

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
With little new to report on the movements of our harriers in recent weeks it was exciting to hear of a tagged harrier from northern Scotland being sighted in Essex last week, on one of our fantastic nature reserves at Wallasea Island nonetheless! No such great journeys to report on locally, bar Burt’s short trip into Cheshire last month. Highlander, one of the young female harriers from the first Bowland nest this summer, continues to reside in the West Pennine Moors, whilst Burt, the young male fledged from the second Bowland nest, has returned to form wandering widely around the AONB. Whilst doing so, his satellite tag has been providing some excellent data allowing us to pinpoint the various locations he has chosen to feed and roost. Burt and Highlander's movements over the past three weeks As well as having our eyes peeled on the data coming in from satellite tagged hen harriers, there are also sightings of harriers coming in from a passionate bunch of folk out there looking for harriers on the fells and in the wider countryside. After several fixes in close proximity late one evening revealing Burt’s exact roosting location, one of these harrier watchers was given a tip off and was in position before dawn the next day. Jean Roberts takes up the story.... After a tip-off from Gavin regarding the whereabouts of Burt, I got up well before first light the next morning to see if I could get a sighting of the young hen harrier leaving his roost site. Normally it is very difficult for me to get up so early and in the dark but that morning it was no problem at all - I was full of hope and excitement! This gave way to apprehension after 20 minutes on site staring at nothing, but suddenly, five minutes before sunrise, up popped Burt from his roost, materialising magically above the fell. I could hardly believe it. It was fantastic to see him still alive and well, especially after the disappearance of Sky and Hope, two of the other satellite-tagged youngsters I’d been hoping to follow through their first few months of life. The sudden “jumping up” of harriers from a roost has been documented by Donald Watson in his excellent book “The Hen Harrier” but it was still a surprise to see it. As I watched, Burt started to quarter the hillside for breakfast but a resident crow spotted him and gave chase. Burt effortlessly dodged the crow with some sideways manoeuvres and, with a flash of his white rump, he flew down the hillside out of view. Some minutes later he mysteriously reappeared, having sneaked up the hillside without either me or the nearby crow noticing. With typical buoyant flight and wings held in a shallow V Burt flew agilely down into a dip and disappeared again. I waited a while but didn’t see him again after that. This is both the joy and frustration of harrier watching as I have found out over the years. Harriers appear so suddenly giving you a jolt but, in the time it takes to scrabble for binoculars to get a better view, they disappear again and you’re wishing you’d noticed the plumage details better or whether they had a sat tag or wishing you hadn’t bothered to get your binoculars at all! But the all too brief sightings of Burt had made my day and I returned home in a very happy frame of mind for a celebratory breakfast. It is experiences such as this that spur me on to get more involved in supporting the monitoring and conservation work being undertaken for hen harriers and other birds in my local area. It is good to know that, along with that of others, my information, positive or negative, helps to build a picture of where our harriers are, how many there are, where they are roosting and foraging and dare I say, where they are under threat from illegal persecution.   Male Hen Harrier heading in to its winter roost site - always guaranteed to get the pulse racing and brighten a dull winter's afternoon! Copyright John Whitting. If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at henharriers@rspb.org.uk or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.  Gavin Thomas and Jean Roberts 11 November 2014

Blog Post: Highlander and Burt – an update

Friday, October 17th, 2014
  Apologies for a lack of updates on our tagged harriers - for the past two weeks I’ve been away on a birding trip to Shetland. No Hen Harriers up there due to a natural absence of voles, one of their main food sources, but I was lucky enough to see a juvenile Pallid Harrier – a rare migrant and close relative that breeds mostly in Russia and central Asia and winters in sub-Saharan Africa - quite a migratory feat and one that sometimes results in these birds drifting way off course!   No such concerns for Burt who has continued to remain faithful to Bowland over the past two weeks. Until a few days ago that is.... Yes he’s finally discovered his adventurous side and has started to head south with his last fix from the mid-Cheshire sandstone ridge. Inland Cheshire is not ideal habitat for a harrier but areas of young conifer plantation and small areas of remnant heath where Burt has frequented will no doubt harbour rodent and meadow pipit food, far more than the surrounding grass silage dairying country that dominates the county. The estuarine northwest of Cheshire however is a great area for seeing wintering Hen Harriers, more on this in a future post... If Burt continues south I expect the meres, mosses and moors of Shropshire and Staffordshire may well be to his liking, in fact a pair of hen harriers held territory in Shropshire in 1988 near the Welsh border. Such areas have historically held breeding harriers and should the national population recover, there is every likelihood hen harriers could breed again in suitable habitat in these counties. Map of Burt and Highlander's recent travels. Meanwhile, Highlander continues to wander the intensively managed grouse moors of the West Pennine Moors and Yorkshire Dales. After the unexplained disappearance of Sky and Hope, it’s good to know that Highlander is still out there holding her own in the uplands. We’ll be following her movements with interest.... Female Hen Harrier hunting over the RSPB's Burton Mere Wetlands reserve on the Dee Estuary. Copyright Steve Round rspb-images.com If you are lucky enough to see a hen harrier, please remember to report it to the hen harrier hotline at henharriers@rspb.org.uk or on 0845 4600 121 (calls charged at local rate).  Reports of sightings should include the date and location and a six-figure grid reference where possible.

Blog Post: Hen harrier-inspired music

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
This week we’ve got a guest blog from Laurence Rose, former RSPB Northern England Director and a composer, who talks about his hen harrier-inspired composition, Skydancer.   I first saw hen harriers skydancing in the late seventies.  It was in the Forest of Bowland and the memory of the birds, and the place – which I came to know intimately in later years – is still vivid.  I remember watching the effortless and buoyant flight of a male harrier and noting how it seemed to trace a gently undulating line that matched the shape of Tarnbrook Fell.  Then a sudden burst of energy and a rocketing flight as a female appeared from nowhere.  Both birds rose to describe a sharper curve, she twisted, he swerved and a speck of prey flew between them.  Then, a serene separation as sudden as the dance itself. On another occasion, I was walking Clougha Fell, across the valley.  It was June and the air was still and warm and peat-scented.  My path took me past a gritstone outcrop where I was greeted by a sudden wind that threw ice crystals in my face before subsiding back to nothing.  For years I was fascinated by these lines and rhythms.  The shapes of the fells against the sky, how they change with the light.  And the patterns of energy as the wind plays around the rocks or the birds play along the wind.  As a composer, I never stop thinking about line and rhythm.  Seeing it in a landscape is half way to writing it in a score:  just add notes!    Last weekend the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra (LCCO) premiered my Skydancer , a short piece that is a direct response to the grandeur and the minutiae of the fells and their inhabitants.  For me, the most important rhythms in music are the big ones, the ones that define the structure of a piece and the flow of energy across its span:  the landscape.  Rhythm at a smaller scale, like the movements of birds or the sounds of the weather, characterise the moment.  The LCCO had asked for a piece “playable by a good amateur orchestra.”  I knew Skydancer would be borderline.  I needed it to progress in gradually-shifting, hazy harmonies; no block chords to signpost the route.  Bursts of energy had to be in the form of complex cross-rhythms, as they always are in nature.  Difficult stuff, but “good amateur orchestra” turned out to be an understatement: it was an impressive performance. I just don’t write music that is about something, or so I always tell people.  The decision to give this piece a title that even hints at what composers pompously call an “extra-musical idea” wasn’t easy.  My music is supposed to be what it is and no more – notes on a page, or in the air if someone actually plays it:  abstract music, like in the old days.   But I heard that the RSPB Skydancer project had been nominated for (and has now won) this year’s national Lottery Award for Best Education Project.  At the same time, momentum behind the inaugural Hen Harrier Day was picking up, while news of yet more atrocities against this wonderful species continued to filter through. Having written a piece that owes so much to my early experiences of fell-walking in what remains of England’s hen harrier country, I couldn’t really not call it Skydancer .   

Comment on Sky and Hope: A plea for information

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
Surprise! Surprise ~ lost in the middle of Grouse Shooting country! :-( This, despite all the high profile, nationwide, negative publicity recently, regarding the persecution of our rare Birds of Prey by those involved in the UK's Red Grouse industry! It looks highly unlikely that the Red Grouse industry in the UK, will ever be able to root out the Scum in their midst, who continue to bring the industry into disrepute!

Blog Post: Sky and Hope: A plea for information

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014
 Regular readers of this blog will be aware that we have been trying to find out what happened to Sky and Hope, two young hen harriers that fledged from nests in Bowland this year. We were tracking the movements of these birds by satellite but their tags suddenly stopped transmitting last month, within days of each other. No bodies have been recovered. Satellite technology is normally extremely reliable so it is most likely that Sky and Hope were either victims of natural predation or illegal persecution. Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit were notified about the disappearance of these birds. However, without any sufficient evidence to work with, they are currently unable to progress any investigation.   If you spend time in the Bowland area you might be able to help. Has anyone been talking about the fate of the birds locally? Gamekeepers, in particular, spend more time on the moors than anyone else and could have come across something. If you’re a member of this community, do you know anything about the fate of the harriers that you’d be willing to share in complete confidence?  We are offering a £1,000 reward for any information that leads to a conviction, should it emerge that one or both birds were illegally killed.  Here are the facts:  Sky’s last transmission was at 7.33pm on Wednesday 10 September at Summersgill Fell, west of Thrushgill, in the Forest of Bowland.  Hope’s last transmission was at 10.51am on the Saturday 13 September at Mallowdale Pike, also in the Forest of Bowland, 2.5km south-west of Sky’s last position.   Blue squares show location of final transmissions from Hope (left) and Sky (right) If you have any information about either birds, please contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or call the RSPB’s confidential hotline on 0845 466 3636.