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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