Having developed an interest in hen harriers during the course of the last winter, it was fascinating to compare them with the marsh harriers which haunt the North Norfolk coast. These larger, rather more cumbersome birds were notably abundant on the freshwater marsh where we were shooting at the end of January, and I had several close encounters with them during the course of my stay. I didn’t see any cock birds and I failed to make out much difference between youngsters and adult hens, so much of my time was spent spotting the many behavioural differences between these birds and the more delicate hen harriers I’ve been watching all winter in Galloway.
Most strikingly, the marsh harriers seemed to hunt with a more laid-back approach than hen harriers. While hen harriers float like feathers a few feet off the ground, the marsh harriers I saw hung up considerably higher and were much less frenetically reactive to the slightest stimulus. I don’t doubt that they are equally thorough in their hunting, but the hen harriers I’ve been watching have the ability to spring backwards, forwards and around in a tight circle at the slightest provocation. Although I never saw the marsh harriers actually making a kill, they periodically flared up as if about to pounce. This action was much more like a kite or a buzzard, not necessarily clumsy, but without the surgical knife-edge of a hen harrier.
There was a dead goose out on a spit of dry ground, and the marsh harriers were preoccupied by this carrion feast. One by one they tried to land for a feed, but three resident crows bobbed and ducked so cleverly that it was hardly worth their while. The harriers hovered and fussed while the crows mobbed them, dangling their long yellow legs down below them like straws. Now and then, one would land at the goose but it was soon beaten off again. In due course, a red kite came and landed at the same kill, but either the crows were too brutal or there wasn’t much worth eating, because it was soon up again too.
The other birds reacted variously to the harriers. The larks flew in flagrant terror, but the harriers never even looked like going for them. Peewits and some black headed gulls got up and flew on when they got too close, but there was only a moderate reaction from most birds. Only once did the resting spread of pink footed geese show any reaction to the hunters, and that is when a single harrier started to circle up into the air and gained some altitude. Perhaps fifty geese took exception to this and moved over a short distance, but the general reaction was more of irritation than fear.
Only when a peregrine appeared further down the marsh was any major upset caused, and in the resulting confusion I lost sight of a ruff I had been watching – the first one I have ever seen. The bird was feeding with two redshank on the edge of a wet splash, and the whole illusion of peace and tranquility was smashed by a blurry haze of dunlin and shoveller passing through my binocular vision.