Harried for a harrier

Hen harrier, with the white tail-band showing why it’s a ‘ringtail’. Photo by Mick Coquhoun

You might think that bird-watching is a gentle pursuit with little chance for trouble. It ain’t always so.

I’d heard that there were a couple of hen harriers not too far from here, so just before Christmas I went to look for them. Hen harriers are Britain’s most endangered bird of prey, having nearly been wiped out by gamekeepers keen to preserve grouse and pheasant stocks.

With the help of a couple of other birders I had distant views – barely enough for me to be sure what I was looking at. Thus when the weather was good I decided to have another look. I went with Alfie from Trinity, and bumped into Mick Colquhoun, a wildlife photographer who’s bittern image I’d extolled a few posts ago.

We crossed a style at the edge of the road and skirted round a ploughed field. As we walked we caught sight of a large bird of prey, and a quick check with binoculars revealed it as a ringtail hen harrier. We were delighted, and over the next ten minutes had some spectacular views: Mick took some great photos, one of which is on the right.

After a while we tryed to get closer still, but were interruped by a large 4×4 being driven up. An irate bloke got out – whether he was the landowner or gamekeeper, we don’t know – and immediately theatened to confiscate our equipment as we’d wandered off the public right of way. It’s possible that he thought we were poachers: we’d seen a couple of fallow deer nearby, and fieldsports are widespread here.

Either way we had to slink off. We relayed the story to a couple of the birding experts here… and we got a rap over the knuckles for endangering the delicate relationships between landowners and the birding community!

Slimbridge on New Year’s morning was a much more relaxed affair. There was an early morning bird walk – an ideal time to go around the site as there are thousands of birds on the reserve at the moment. I then went back the next day, as Dave Doughty and John Linney also wanted to go while the weather was good. Below are a few photos from it.

Bewick’s swans, which breed in Siberia, and a tufted duck just up from a dive.

A wigeon

The birds can be quite easily spooked into flight, especially if there are peregrines or buzzards flying over. Click to enlarge.