Eyes on the sky for a rare bird of prey

A 'skydancer' male hen harrier in flight,  carrying a twig.
Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB
A 'skydancer' male hen harrier in flight, carrying a twig. Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB

People who enjoy the great outdoors of the Ribble Valley are being urged to look out for hen harriers, one of England’s rarest birds of prey.

As the breeding season approaches, the RSPB has relaunched its Hen Harrier Hotline with the aim of finding out where these birds might be breeding.

At this time of year, the male hen harrier performs a spectacular courtship ritual known as skydancing, which involves a series of aerobatic swoops and somersaults.

If he is lucky enough to attract a female, he then proves his worth by passing her food offerings in mid-flight.

Scientists estimate there is enough suitable habitat in the English uplands to provide a home to at least 320 pairs of breeding hen harriers. Last year there were only six successful nests in the whole country; one of them in Bowland, where the bird is the symbol of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Government and landowners have committed to reversing the threatened bird’s fortunes with the publication of the Hen Harrier Action Plan.

Amanda Miller, conservation manager for the RSPB in Northern England, said: “I would urge anyone who sees one to report it the Hen Harrier Hotline. As part of our EU-funded Hen Harrier Life+ Project, we have dedicated staff and volunteers ready to protect nests but we can only do so if we know where they are.”

Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.

Female hen harriers are slightly larger, owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.

The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to henharriers@rspb.org.uk

Reports should include the date and location, grid reference where possible.