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 Hen Harrier - Fact File

Male Hen Harrier
Male (see article for female)

Circus cyaneus
Local breeding resident, with most pairs in Scotland (including Orkney) and Ireland. In winter more widespread including eastern and southern England.
Main breeding habitat moorland and young conifer plantations. In winter found on fields and rough pasture, particularly coastal areas, marshes and often roosts communally in favoured reedbeds.

Typical harrier shape and V-shaped wings. Male strickingly pale with white and grey but with black wing tips. Females and young birds (collectively know as ringtails), brownish but share male's white rump.

43 - 50 cm (17 - 20")

Hen Harriers

A car provides an excellent mobile observatory for tracking down and observing contingents of pink-footed geese wintering in north-west Norfolk.

As we enjoyed watching hundreds of them flying in to a stubble field to rest and doze in the midday sun, my wife spotted a ring-tail hen harrier quartering a beet field yet to be harvested. Gracefully and effortlessly the harrier glided low over the ground before half-turning with tail fanned and then quickly stalling before dropping.

Hen harriers are winter visitors to East Anglia. Most arrive from mid-September, but pioneers have put in appearances from as early as August. The majority have returned to breeding grounds by late March, but stragglers have lingered locally until the end of May.

There are indications that a higher proportion of male hen harriers winter in the milder parts of Britain than in the north and east. One observer remarked that during winter visits to the Outer Hebrides adult males exceeded ring-tails by five or more to one - the exact opposite of the position here.

Hen harriers formerly nested in the Fens and Broads, the last occasion in Norfolk being at Horsey in 1861. In Suffolk there is convincing evidence of attempted nesting at Tuddenham in 1929. Hen harriers rarely fly in wet weather, but in dry conditions the birds spend much of the day on the wing. Hunting begins at daybreaks, searching the same ground each day.

Between hunting forays I have seen them perched on fence posts and in dead trees. Food is mainly small mammals, together with birds. Mammals taken are chiefly mice, voles and rabbits. Towards sunset hen harriers occupy communal roosts the largest site known locally is in Broadland. Here, against the lingering light of a winter afternoon, I have often watched, fascinated, as the darkly silhouetted harriers glide in just above the reeds. One and then another will hesitate in flight before suddenly dropping out of sight into tall cover. Night after night these splendid birds sit it out through the long hours of darkness in their roofless beds.

Female Hen HarrierFemale Hen Harrier ('Ringtail')

As many as 54 hen harriers have been recorded in a single Dutch reedbed roost. The situation on the Isle of Man is even more exciting. The harriers began nesting there in 1977 - usually in failed conifer plantations. More than 40 pairs are breeding nowadays with more than 80 assembling to roost during the winter in what has become the largest hen harrier communal roost in Western Europe.

.By Ted Ellis

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.