Harrier Fever

Having recently read Mark Avery’s brilliant Inglorious (for the second time) and unexpectedly seen my first Hen Harrier, I find myself blissfully affected by ‘harrier fever’. Ever since I read Inglorious and learned of the Hen Harrier’s plight I have longed to see one. That all changed one evening at Alkborough Flats this February…

Perhaps it’s human nature to defend the underdog (which the Hen Harrier certainly is in the context of illegal persecution)? Perhaps it’s the bird’s undeniable classiness and elegance? Perhaps it’s that the harrier is the pinnacle of evolution in the form of a vole-hunting machine? In any case there is something irresistible about Hen Harriers, something that makes one rejoice whenever one is seen. For some reason, I have always seen the Hen Harrier as a special bird, early memories of seeing a female pictured in my dad’s Collins Gem field guide prove this. I imagined it chasing chickens (it is a HEN harrier after all, but now I now that Moor Hen is an old name for Red Grouse which makes much more sense…) or sitting in the heather of the uplands in Britain or Northern Europe. I always thought to myself how beautiful, intricately marked and well camouflaged it looked. Strangely, it was not a bird that I ever envisaged seeing, maybe I could sense the illegal persecution?

One cold, February evening me and my family paid a visit to Alkborough Flats in the hope of seeing a Starling murmuration. We did see one, although it was very far away and the light levels were falling rapidly, it was still a sight to behold, the flock twisting and turning like a shoal of avian fish. But before this we were seated in a hide waiting for something to happen.

Redshanks pottered around the pools before us while a considerable roost of lapwing was forming on the mud. A dark shape drifted over the reeds, wings raised, quartering the ground intensely in the edge of my vision. A Marsh Harrier. A lovely bird to see, although quite a common sight on the reedbeds of East Yorkshire. This bird is followed by another and they both float left over the marsh. Suddenly a brown bird bursts from cover very near the hide. The white rump is immediately obvious. I know it instantly, a ringtail Hen Harrier. It flies differently to the Marsh Harriers, it is quicker and far more elegant than them. Twisting and turning, it hassles some small birds hidden amongst the reeds and was then lost. A brief but heart-pounding view of Britain’s most controversial raptor.

I needed more, harrier fever had overtaken me, so a trip to Blacktoft Sands duly ensued.  I was desperate to see a ‘silver ghost’, an adult male. Blacktoft started off with prolonged views of many Marsh Harriers and then another ringtail made an appearance, again drifting confidently through the air and into the Phragmites. My second Hen Harrier and my second ringtail. Even though it was once again a brief view, none of the joy had been taken away and this only intensified my desire to see the big prize (unfortunately also seen as the big prize by gamekeepers to disband nests on their managed land), a silver ghost. A shout of “Barn Owl” from the other side of the hide got my pulse racing and a fly over of a small falcon sadly wasn’t the Merlin that was in the area, but a Kestrel. A far commoner but nonetheless beautiful bird. There were also some murmurings about a male Hen Harrier that could have been briefly seen.

After this, the Barn Owls did come out to play, there were two in the air at one point, and rewarded us with prolonged and enjoyable views of them hovering and drifting over the marsh like serene spectres. They made me re-think what my favourite owl was and they did come out on top of the Short-Eared Owl…

It was getting dark and suggestions that we should leave were being made, I was watching the distant Starling murmuration along with everybody else in the hide when I decided to scan the reedbed once again, almost in vain. A light shape caught my eye, it was there. The silver ghost twisted and turned in the half-light, the black wingtips forming an exquisite contrast with the powder grey body. It was up, down, hawking over the marsh. The cold wind stung my eyes and nipped at my toes but the Hen Harrier continued to fly while it unknowingly instilled joy in my heart. It showed for what seemed a gratifying eternity and I eventually had to tear myself away from the spectacle to go home. No day can ever be a bad day when you see a Hen Harrier.

I could have gone into lots of detail about illegal persecution and displayed my passion to conserve this truly amazing species but I think I’ll save that for nearer Hen Harrier Day and the Inglorious 12th, my blog is in danger of having a complete harrier imbalance. Anything for a pallid to turn up near me…

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Rants For Change Blog Post – The State of Nature in Teenage Society: Nature Isn’t Cool

I was recently asked to write a blog post for the Rants For Change site. I chose to do this topic because I think it is extremely important and it is also something I feel strongly about. You can find the Rants For Change site here http://rantsforchange.com/2016/02/25/the-state-of-nature-in-teenage-society/

I think it’s fair to say nature is not seen as ‘cool’ in today’s teenage society. This is something I feel passionately about, and which needs to be changed, especially as I had first-hand experience of being teased (not exactly bullied) about my love for nature late in primary school. Because of this, I sadly felt the need to hide my passion and have denied it multiple times, many of these at high school. I also know of many other young birders and naturalists who have suffered the same fate.

It is harrowing to think of the talent that is, or could be, out there but is being suppressed within people due to immature teasing. Talent which could change the world. I’m not just talking about scientific talent, or talent that could advance our knowledge of nature, but all forms of talent can end up being suppressed due to young people feeling the need to ridicule anything that is slightly different to what they are used to. Ecological and conservation talent is especially important considering the challenges our planet faces in the future, with an ever-growing population.

Now I have got rid of my (relatively) childish embarrassment and am no longer hiding my love of nature. I assumed people would judge and think less of me as a person for it but, in reality, no one would have acted differently towards me. I’m now confident if more people found out about my love for nature, it wouldn’t change their opinion of me. It’s easier for me to realise this now, because I’ve gained the respect of my peers, as I am in my final year at school and no longer feel any need to prove myself to others.

Sadly, children who are younger than me may be in a different position, feeling they have to fit in with their peers and need to prove themselves to others by trying to act hard. In my opinion, that is not the type of person you should aspire to be and you should never be afraid to be yourself. Eventually, everyone will respect you for your own character and not your quirks and interests, that is something I have learnt. Just take a look at Findlay Wilde, a young naturalist, birder and conservationist who has nearly 3000 followers on Twitter and has already been on national mainstream television. He is a prime example of what can happen if you go after your goals and open yourself up to what you feel passionate about.

Besides, nature hasn’t always been an uncool and ridiculed pastime. Around the time of the Second World War, nature was a cultural mainstay in England, especially loved and interacted with by teenage society. Activities like butterfly and bird’s egg collecting brought teenagers into contact with nature and, although in most cases they were extremely detrimental to the species which they involved, it inspired future conservationists and nature personalities. It’s ironic that destruction of species in the past, led to the conservation and protection of species in the future. It demonstrates that the conservationists of today, or in the near past, were enlightened about nature when it was a ‘normal’ activity to pursue. This is a scary prospect for the future, for if oppression by peers stops people interacting with nature, I fear there will be a significant lack of conservationists and nature-lovers in our future.

This poses a huge risk at a time when humankind needs conservationists the most. It is quite clear to me the biggest problems affecting us as a species are the problems created by ourselves. For example, threats such as global warming and intensive farming are damaging the delicate links between species which make up the wider web of nature. The ecosystem that we are damaging provides us with fresh drinking water and oxygen so it’s clearly something we need to take care of. These are all problems caused by us.

My Rant for Change is for teenage society to accept wildlife watching for what it once was, a normal pastime. Clearly this isn’t going to happen overnight so celebrities, nature personalities and organisations need to get involved. I feel there are a couple of solutions to this issue. There are brilliant projects currently in action run by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts – inspiring people who would not otherwise have any stimulus to look at the world around them in more detail. There are children in cities who don’t know where the food they eat comes from.

If all children were given the opportunity to experience nature at a young age it would be particularly effective because, as these children get older and grow into their teens, they’ll become less judgemental and more accepting of change and new things. This could be further implemented by creating a space in the national curriculum for a lesson of ‘nature studies’ or something similar. This way, pretty much every child in the country could be brought closer to nature and, even if not everyone becomes a naturalist, birder or conservationist, new generations will be more environmentally aware and more inclined to make a difference to the future of our planet.

I think it’s clear that something needs to be done socially too. I’m sure that many celebrities, nature ambassadors and those who govern education could really help change this. Then young naturalists, birders and conservationists can be free from the judgemental eyes of teenage society and be allowed to embrace their passions. Hey, maybe one day walking out onto the street with a pair of binoculars might be cool?

“I can’t stand the way they slam today’s gifted”- Tech N9ne