Blog Post: Hen harrier Class of 2016: an update

As I sit at my desk with every window in the office open and the sun beating through the glass, it feels as though the year has abandoned any thought of Spring and skipped straight to Summer. Long may it last! It’s also a reminder (as if I needed one) that we are rapidly approaching the thick of the hen harrier breeding season, and my thoughts are naturally with our five remaining satellite-tagged females from 2016. What will these young birds, barely even a year old, make of their first true summer and will they survive to see another autumn? The news of a hen harrier shooting allegedly witnessed in broad daylight only weeks ago, near Leadhills in Southwest Scotland, has done little to calm my nerves. For now however, I am delighted and hugely relieved to say that all five birds are alive and doing well. Not only that but against all the indications of their youth, at least three of our females are now confirmed breeding, with a fourth seemingly not far behind! Harriet – a history-making young bird as one of the first hen harriers in living memory to fledge from the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, Harriet spent all winter in the Lake District but come Spring, clearly felt the pull of home. She returned to Mar Lodge briefly in April but has since gone wandering around the East of Scotland. When the data from her tag showed she had started sticking tightly to one area of Perthshire, we sent the team to look for her on the ground and sure enough, she is now sitting on a full clutch of eggs! ( Image: Shaila Rao ) DeeCee – from a private estate in Perthshire, our DeeCee never showed much inclination to leave the familiar ground of the Cairngorms. That was until all of a sudden in April, she started yo-yoing between there and the west coast of Scotland, making day-trips to Jura and Mull and back again. This incredible behaviour serves to show just how far and how quickly hen harriers can travel, and how unpredictable those movements can be. She has now settled somewhere in the middle, in the mainland area of  Argyll & Bute, and once again when our team went to look, they found her sitting on a full clutch of 5 eggs! ( Image: Brian Etheridge ) Finn – our one remaining English bird, Finn left Northumberland very shortly after fledging and has made a steady westward tour of the Scottish Borders, ultimately settling in South Ayrshire for the winter months. Unlike DeeCee and Harriet though, it would seem she didn’t need to travel quite so far to find an attractive breeding site, as in the last couple of weeks, she has been discovered sitting on a nest with eggs in an area of Southwest Scotland! ( Image: Martin Davison ) Aalin – this Manx beauty is proving a source of endless fascination as the first harrier officially to have been recorded leaving the Isle of Man for mainland Britain. She was spotted at a local nature reserve in Warrington in November, before making her way south to spend the winter over an area of farmland in Shropshire. The last of our hen harriers to forsake her wintering grounds this Spring, Aalin has only just recently moved across into North Wales. We wondered if she could be getting ready to make the leap across the water and back to her island home but it seems she may have found a reason to stay... as she’s been spotted dallying with a grey male over some very suitable looking habitat. Will she stay or will she go? Watch this space...! ( Image: Sean Gray ) Wendy – from Coulport MOD on the West Coast of Scotland, Wendy was the most sedentary of all our tagged harriers over winter, making herself very comfortable on the Isle of Mull from October right through until April. Of course she now seems to be making up for lost time and is apparently the only one of our young birds still determined to wander, though still no great distances. Most recently, she has been spending time in an area just to the west of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. ( Image: John Simpson ) Normally when people ask me about first-year hen harriers, I’d say they don’t usually breed in their first year but it can certainly happen. Donald Watson, the eminent hen harrier scholar himself, noted proportions of first year hen harriers breeding in a population ranging from 8-30%. However that three, possibly four, out of five of our tagged birds have had the opportunity to breed in their first summer does seem remarkable. Given the sensitivities of the breeding season and the need to protect the locations of both our nesting females and any other nesting hen harriers that may be in the same areas, we have temporarily stopped updating the maps on the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website . I’m sure you can appreciate the need for this and rest assured, you can still get the latest updates from our tagged birds on this blog and on twitter @RSPB_Skydancer . Thanks to generous funding from LUSH cosmetics through the sales of their Skydancer bathbomb, this summer we have plans to fit satellite tags to hen harriers across a wider range of places than ever before – from Wales to Orkney, and as many places in between as possible! If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that hen harriers travel widely and unpredictably, so if we want to protect them in one area, we need to protect them wherever they may be. I look forward to resuming our usual schedule of updates in the autumn, when with any luck, we’ll have a whole new cohort of young hen harriers ready to share their exciting journeys with you. In the meantime, stay tuned to this blog and twitter - who knows what the next few months will bring?  Watch this space... --- To find out more about the Hen Harrier LIFE Project, visit www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife