Bell Sykes Meadow Slaidburn

Over the summer I have been  recording the growth on one of the meadows at Bell Sykes near Slaidburn by taking photographs from the same spot every week. This was to help Sarah Robinson, the Forest of Bowland Hay Time Project Officer http://forestofbowland.com/Hay-Time-Project-0. Bell Sykes meadows are part of the Coronation meadows project.

The Coronation Meadows website coronationmeadows.org.uk describe them as

“Bell Sykes Meadows includes six unimproved flower-rich fields. Three of these include grasses such as meadow foxtail and sweet vernal grass along with moisture loving flowers like great burnet and meadowsweet. The upper three fields are home to the characteristic flowers of dry hay meadows in northern England. Meadow crane’s-bill and melancholy thistle grow together with a colourful mix of yellow rattle, eyebrights, pignut, buttercups and lady’s mantle.

Bell Sykes Meadows is one of the last unimproved flower-rich grasslands in this part of Lancashire. This vulnerable habitat has become increasingly scarce and has largely been destroyed in Lancashire through agricultural intensification.”

Blog Post: Second 2016 hen harrier goes missing

I’m sorry to have to report that we have lost another of this year’s satellite tagged hen harrier chicks. Brian, named after the very experienced raptor worker Brian Etheridge, was one of our non-public-facing birds. With the permission of the landowner and help of local Scottish Raptor Study Group members, he was tagged as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project on 4 th July on an estate in Perthshire within the Cairngorms National Park. He fledged from the nest and stayed close to the nest site until the beginning of August when he moved north into southern Inverness-shire. Brian then spent the next few weeks over various areas of managed grouse moor, within the National Park with frequent strong, clear transmissions from his tag providing detailed information about his daily travels. Brian having just received his satellite tag (photo: Jenny Weston) Suddenly and without warning, these transmissions stopped on 22 nd August. There was no indication of battery failure or other technical problems. His last recorded position was a few miles from Kingussie, though he may have travelled some distance before his satellite tag stopped. Despite a thorough search of the area with landowner cooperation, his body could not be found.  Brian is the fourth satellite-tagged hen harrier to suddenly disappear off radar this year, after our 2014 birds Highlander and Chance  vanished in County Durham and South Lanarkshire respectively this Spring, and 2016 bird  Elwood  disappeared in the Monadhliaths last month.  The Scottish Government has ordered a review of satellite tracking data , following reports of the disappearance of a number of golden eagles  in the Monadhliath mountains. Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, said: “ The latest reports of satellite-tagged golden eagles disappearing on or near grouse moors are very disturbing and disappointing. “That is why I have instructed officials to analyse the evidence from around 90 surviving and missing satellite-tagged eagles, to discover if there is a pattern of suspicious activity. “Grouse moor management does help species such as curlew and golden plover as well as generating much needed rural employment and income but this cannot be at any price. “The public rightly expects all businesses in Scotland to obey the law. Let me be clear: grouse shooting is no exception. “As previously stated, the Scottish Government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary. It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running .” This review has recently been expanded to include data from hen harriers and red kites. We welcome this review and look forward to the report on its findings.  It's now a case of all fingers and toes crossed for our remaining young satellite-tagged hen harriers. You can follow the fortunes of 10 of these birds online at www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer .   

Comment on Second 2016 hen harrier goes missing

You get to a point where you're tired of commenting on how sickening this is - to watch these lovely birds grow up, and then you ring and tag them while trying to ignore the fact that at some point you'll probably have to tell the world that your beautiful tagged bird has abruptly vanished without a trace.  On this side of the border we really need to keep banging on about this horrendousness as Parliament prepares to debate the 'sport' of driven grouse shooting and all its dreadful consequences.

Blog Post: Guest blog: Satellite tracking and mortality in Montagu’s harriers

Raymond Klaassen is one of the lead researchers at the  Dutch Montagu's Harrier Foundation . Here he tells us about his work using satellite tracking to study the migration and mortality of Montagu's harriers on the continent.  This nomadic species is a close relative of the hen harrier and so similar in appearance to the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Montagu's harriers currently breed on agricultural land in just three locations in the UK, and widely across Europe, from Spain to Belarus. The satellite tags used by the Dutch Montagu's Harrier Foundation are of the same make and model as those currently being used to track hen harriers in the UK.  The tagging process is also subject to the same stringent licensing procedures to ensure the welfare of the birds always comes first.  The Montagu’s harrier is a rare breeding bird in the Netherlands with a breeding population of about 30-60 pairs. Conservation includes fencing all nests in agricultural fields in order to protect the young during harvest. In addition, efforts are made to improve the harriers’ foraging conditions via Agri-Environment Schemes. However, as Montagu’s harriers are long-distance migrants wintering in sub-Saharan Africa it is equally important to also conserve this elegant species during the non-breeding season. If for example a disaster would occur along the migration route or in the wintering area, all conservation efforts on the breeding grounds would be in vain. A basic but essential step towards a year-round conservation is to determine migration routes and wintering areas and satellite tags are the perfect tool with which to do this. In 2006 we tagged the first two Dutch Montagu’s harriers using satellite transmitters, and it was thrilling to be able to follow the journeys of the birds via the daily updates. Since then, we have tracked more than 67 adult Montagu’s harriers from six different countries in Europe, in which the UK has been the latest addition . Satellite transmitters are small technological wonders that allow tracking individual birds around the globe in almost real-time. This is vital, as it actually allows studying when and where the birds die. It is always sad to lose a bird that you have come to know quite well, but information about mortality is of course extremely important for conservation. After having accumulated seven years of tracking data, we decided to review the causes of death of all of our tracked birds to date. In order to boost the dataset we also included data from Swedish Marsh Harriers and Ospreys which had been satellite tracked by colleagues from Lund University in Sweden using the same technology. One important question we had was whether migration is a dangerous behaviour in comparison to breeding and wintering. Indeed, we lost relatively many birds during time they were travelling, and thus the daily mortality rate was clearly raised for migration periods, especially for spring migration. The safest time of the year turned out to be the winter in Africa. When a bird dies, the transmitter is designed to keep sending positions, providing a large number of data points from the final location. The satellite transmitter also has an activity sensor which indicates whether the bird is moving, and this sensor data can be used to confirm the death of the bird. Mortality is more difficult to prove when contact with the transmitter ceases abruptly (observed in 14% of all cases). Was it the bird that died or has there been a technical failure of the transmitter? Technical failures generally are rare. We have recorded a few throughout the years (6% of all cases), however failures have always been preceded by irregular transmission periods and, most importantly, a drop in battery voltage (another parameter monitored by the transmitter). This makes it relatively straightforward to distinguish between a likely mortality event and a likely transmitter failure. Indeed, we never saw a bird returning to the breeding area that we had deemed to have died based on the different sources of satellite telemetry data, but we have seen birds returning with non-functioning transmitters in cases where we had deemed technical failures. A sad but instrumental example of how satellite telemetry could help to evaluate individual cases of mortality is the disappearance of Montagu’s harrier female “Mo”  in East Anglia in 2014. This breeding bird was tracked successfully for several weeks after tagging, until suddenly no new locations were received after the 8 th of August. Technical failure could readily be ruled out in this case as the transmitter had been working perfectly well up to the point contact ceased (and Mo was not observed in the field anymore despite extensive searches). Most likely the bird died but it is unlikely that a natural predator was involved given the fact that the signal stopped so abruptly. In the event of a natural death, we would expect the tag to continue transmitting and send out a new signal to indicate the bird had died. In fact, this information combined by the fact that the last positions were received from a hunting estate points towards illegal persecution. In summary, satellite telemetry actually is a powerful tool to prove illegal persecution. For example, the repeated disappearance of tagged Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles in certain areas in the UK can only be explained by high levels of illegal persecution. The use of this technology opens exciting opportunities to not only study natural causes of mortality of raptors in the field in more detail but also to fight illegal persecution in a better way. Suggested reading Klaassen, R. H., Hake, M., Strandberg, R., Koks, B. J., Trierweiler, C., Exo, K. M., ... & Alerstam, T. (2014). When and where does mortality occur in migratory birds? Direct evidence from long‐term satellite tracking of raptors. Journal of Animal Ecology ,  83 (1), 176-184. Koks, B. J., Trierweiler, C., Visser, E. G., Dijkstra, C., & Komdeur, J. (2007). Do voles make agricultural habitat attractive to Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus?.  Ibis ,  149 (3), 575-586. Trierweiler, C., Koks, B. J., Drent, R. H., Exo, K. M., Komdeur, J., Dijkstra, C., & Bairlein, F. (2007). Satellite tracking of two Montagu’s Harriers (Circus pygargus): dual pathways during autumn migration.  Journal of Ornithology , 148 (4), 513-516. Trierweiler, C., & Koks, B. J. (2009). Montagu’s harrier Circus pygargus. Living on the edge: Wetlands and birds in a changing Sahel , 312-327. Trierweiler, C., Mullie, W. C., Drent, R. H., Exo, K. M., Komdeur, J., Bairlein, F., ... & Koks, B. J. (2013). A Palaearctic migratory raptor species tracks shifting prey availability within its wintering range in the Sahel.  Journal of animal ecology ,  82 (1), 107-120. Trierweiler, C., Klaassen, R. H., Drent, R. H., Exo, K. M., Komdeur, J., Bairlein, F., & Koks, B. J. (2014). Migratory connectivity and population-specific migration routes in a long-distance migratory bird.  Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences ,  281 (1778), 20132897. Schlaich, A. E., Klaassen, R. H., Bouten, W., Both, C., & Koks, B. J. (2015). Testing a novel agri‐environment scheme based on the ecology of the target species, Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus.  Ibis ,  157 (4), 713-721. Vansteelant, W. M. G., Bouten, W., Klaassen, R. H. G., Koks, B. J., Schlaich, A. E., van Diermen, J., ... & Shamoun‐Baranes, J. (2015). Regional and seasonal flight speeds of soaring migrants and the role of weather conditions at hourly and daily scales.  Journal of Avian Biology , 46 (1), 25-39.

Autumnal butterflies

There is a definite nip in the air first thing in the morning and last thing at night but midday is as hot as any summer day we've had and the butterflies and bees are making the most of late flowering blooms to prepare for hibernation. My garden might be looking a bit past its best but theres still lots of lovely colour to make the most of and gladden the heart.






Blog Post: Introducing Katy: inspiring schools and communities about hen harriers

Guest blog from Katy Saulite, one of our two Community Engagement Officers for the Hen Harrier LIFE Project.  Hello everyone. I feel like it is long overdue that I introduce myself as one of two community engagement officers working as part of the Hen Harrier LIFE Project. As part of this introduction I would like to include a delightfully kind drawing I received from a pupil of Muirkirk Primary School in May, during my first outreach session to a school as part of the project. My name’s Katy and I'm working predominantly in Scotland, delivering exciting community engagement work through the LIFE project across our target project Special Protection Areas (SPAs). As I am now getting stuck into my role I hope to give regular updates of my work with schools, agricultural colleges, community groups and the wider public. I am happy to report that this summer saw me getting out and about to five different primary schools, in and around the Forest of Clunie and Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands SPAs. These visits included assemblies, active workshops and, in one case, a very blustery trip onto the moorland around Muirkirk. Feedback in the form of poetry, drawing, rap and interpretive dance has certainly been entertaining but more importantly extremely encouraging and heartening that these children have been inspired by the story of the hen harrier, and have shown concern for its future. I am very much looking forward to my future work with the Hen Harrier LIFE Project but for now will leave you with a lovely little poem from a pupil in the P6/7 class of Kirkmichael Primary. Enjoy! Kirkmichael Primary 6/7 class posing with their hen harrier poems. The hen harrier swoops so gracefully. To find a girl, he needs to twirl! Dips and dives through the skies, To find the mate to be his date!   Kirkmichael Primary pupil May 2016

Blog Post: Guest blog: A view from the hills

David Hunt is one of two Assistant Investigations Officers employed by RSPB's Hen Harrier LIFE Project to support the conservation and protection of this species. Here he reflects on the 2016 breeding season and shares some of his thoughts and experiences of watching over these beautiful birds.  I always think that August is a month when the hill seems to breathe again. The hustle bustle of the busy upland bird breeding season has ground to a halt and all becomes quiet again. This was apparent as I slipped out from the forest edge and stopped to survey the now purple heather-tinged hill, the only noise coming from the wind rippling through the swathes of slowly browning bracken. Not far out onto the hill to my delight, a young female Hen Harrier, complete with a brand new satellite tag on her back gave me a brief squeak before lifting over me and disappearing over the brow. Shortly after, her brother, looking equally dapper with his new satellite tag jumped up from in front of me, cast a watchful eye over my figure and headed off in search of his sister over the hill. The peaceful silence of the hill briefly interrupted by the effortless beating of wings as the two harriers drifted over my head. Female hen harrier in flight. (Photo: Mark Thomas) This, unfortunately, is all too rare an experience in England. 2016 has been yet another year of Hen Harriers appearing in the news for a variety of reasons; the disappearance of one of 2014's star birds, Highlander  in the spring, the publication DEFRA Hen Harrier Action Plan and our recent withdrawal of support for it and a grand total of three nesting attempts in England. It is, however, the three successful nesting attempts that I want to focus on. What with the politics of the species often dominating the picture, it is easy to forget sometimes that, although small in number, these birds do exist and aren’t just a depressing statistic. These beautiful birds, far out on the hill, are completely unaware of the battle to save them as an English breeding bird. And we need reminding of them. Female hen harrier and chicks. (Photo: James Leonard) The majority of my work in the RSPB Investigations Team unfortunately involves dealing with the fallout of the continuing persecution of British birds of prey in the uplands. 2016 has been no different. The video that emerged of a camouflaged armed man with a hen harrier decoy in the Peak District and the discovery of three set pole traps in an area of the Yorkshire Dales, close to where a female Hen Harrier had been seen, both stark reminders of the continuing battle that the species faces in our uplands. Stills of film footage showing an armed man with a hen harrier decoy in the Peak District earlier this year.  The season started with the usual pulse of optimism and preparation of all the resources I would need at my disposal for the long summer months. A trickle of Hen Harrier sightings, with the odd bout of skydancing though provided a timely reminder of just how far this ghostly hunter of our hills has fallen. So the relief was palpable when first one and then two pairs settled down on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, swiftly followed by the icing on the (albeit fairly small) cake, a pair on our wonderful RSPB reserve at Geltsdale in Cumbria. Three pairs. OK, hardly cause for celebration, but each pair of these birds should be celebrated regardless of how many, or few there are, because they’re fantastic. Success stories can often seem few and far between in my line of work, so seeing all three of the English Hen Harrier nesting attempts through from start to finish this year has been a real privilege. Hen harrier tustle. (Photo: Mike Davenport) Sitting in the heather, with the ‘siiip siiip’ of Meadow Pipits echoing around me, the unmistakable silvery grey outline of a male Hen Harrier whips across the fell. He’s on a mission. Within a matter of seconds, the female harrier is up off the nest, willing her partner to drop his catch. After a brief bout of acrobatics, the male meanders off and alights on a fencepost, his chores complete for now, affording me stunning views. A dazzling white beacon in the sunshine. The female finishes her lunch and has a brief rest on a nearby rock before winding her way back to her nest and dropping down out of sight to continue her expectant mother duties. The male has a brief preen and scan of the surrounding hillside before he’s off over the brow in search of the next meal. Perhaps sneaking in a Meadow Pipit snack for himself before he’s due back with the next catch. An intimate snapshot into the daily activities of England’s rarest bird of prey. Satellite tagged on RSPB's Geltsdale reserve, Bonny was one of only seven hen harrier chicks to fledge in England this year. (Photo: Mark Thomas) The summer progresses and thoughts turn to the class of 2016; 7 English Hen Harrier chicks ready to fledge the nest and face the world. A lot of hard work went into the monitoring of these pairs and the Northumberland Hen Harrier Partnership and all the staff at RSPB Geltsdale deserve an immense amount of praise for their work in ensuring the successful outcome of each nest. My work with the harriers at the breeding sites may be over for another year but in many ways the real challenge is just beginning. After a brief interlude, thoughts will turn again to the harriers winging their way into their remote winter roosts in near darkness and the constant tracking of our satellite tagged birds on their travels. Each log in to view the data on my laptop is met with a feeling of nervous excitement as I check where the day has taken them this time. 2017 will inevitably bring new challenges in the world of the Hen Harriers and we will continue to do our utmost in support of the species. For the time being though, the 2 recently fledged harriers which just lifted over my head are away to make their mark on the upland landscape and all is quiet on the hill again. I make my way back through the rippling bracken and slip back into the forest. You can follow the fortunes of this year's satellite tagged hen harriers online by visiting www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife or @RSPB_Skydancer . 

Blog Post: Meet the Hen Harrier Class of 2016

The profiles of 11 of this year's satellite-tagged hen harriers are now online and what a handsome bunch they are. Check out the Hen Harrier LIFE Project website  to learn more about their stories and meet:                  Aalin (Photo: James Leonard)                 Beater (Photo: Euan Weston)                   Bonny (Photo: Mark Thomas)                     Carroll (Photo: Martin Davison)                 DeeCee (Photo: Brian Etheridge)               Donald (Photo: Dean Thompson)                             Elwood (Photo: Brian Etheridge)                                 Finn (far right, Photo: Martin Davison)                 H arriet (Photo: Shaila Rao)                     Hermione (Photo: Paul Haworth)             Wendy (Photo: John Simpson) Sadly Elwood is already no longer with us, but you'll soon be able to follow the progress of our other 10 birds as we map their movements online. The first maps will be uploaded in the next couple of weeks, as our young hen harriers start to get more adventurous and spread their wings away from their nesting grounds... so be sure to watch this space. www.rspb.org.uk/henharrierlife @RSPB_Skydancer Stay safe little ones!