The past month has provided some extraordinary opportunities to spend time with hen harriers. Owing to work and the logistics of moving house, my notes inform me that I have only been up around the Chayne seventeen times since returning from my honeymoon, but each occasion has yielded at least one harrier, and on one trip a fortnight ago, I saw five individual birds working the same rushy fifteen acre field at once. It was a particular revelation to see a mature cock flying with a hen – at first I thought the grey bird was mobbing a buzzard, but the binoculars revealed the surprising difference in size between the sexes. Cocks really are small, and it was only seeing both together that finally brought it home.
The huge majority of harriers I’ve seen have been ringtails, and there has been a surprising variety of colourations and markings between individuals. I can recognise one in particular that has a creamy gold mohican, and when others fly together then direct comparisons can be made. It is good fun to stalk up to them as they hunt, getting as close as you can when their backs are turned in the knowledge that at the end of each sweeping scan they will return downwind and do the same again. They are often so engrossed in watching for movement below them that you can get within a few yards without too much difficulty, and even then they seem unable to see anything that is not moving, particularly if you can find a dyke or a hedge to break your outline. When they see you first, they seldom let you get within two hundred yards, but a bit of patience combined with some crawling on hands and knees certainly pays dividends. Yet again, the new Minox binoculars are pulling their weight.
It has been interesting to follow the progress of the harriers from Langholm (on the Making the Most of Moorlands blog), and although some of the tagged birds have come near the Chayne, none seem to have actually passed through. Given that there were so many harriers produced at Langholm this summer, I’d be surprised if none of them have spent an hour or two on the farm, and it is a shame that more weren’t tagged as part of this side of the project. Short eared owls have also had a phenomenal year at Langholm, but sadly they are never mentioned in the publicity (what little of it there is) because they are deemed to be outside the remit of the project (as are blackgame). This is a pity, since of all the birds of prey, bog owls are far and away my favourite.