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Harrier Highlights

Malcolm Ogilvie

Every spring and summer, I spend several days sitting on vantage points overlooking moorland and young forestry watching Hen Harriers. In April, the first sighting is usually of the grey, black wing-tipped, male sky-dancing to attract a mate. He powers almost vertically upwards for a couple of hundred feet before flipping over at the top and hurtling downwards until a few feet from the ground, then up he goes again, as if attached to an invisible roller-coaster. It is at the same time powerful and graceful.

I watch the harriers, not just for the sheer pleasure of it, but to find their nests, preferably soon after the clutch has been laid, recording clutch size and breeding success, and ringing the young (all done under licence). The male feeds the female while she incubates, catching small mammals and birds and bringing them back to the nest. He calls as he approaches and the female rises off the nest and flies up to meet him for the food pass. With rapid, unerring skill, she moves underneath him as he releases the prey and rolls over on her back and grasps it in her talons as it falls. She then drops to the ground and devours the meal before flying back to the nest.

This, then, is how one finds a harrier's nest, watch for the returning male and then watch the female back to the nest. It sounds easy, it usually isn't! Firstly, the only suitable vantage point may be as much as half a mile away. Secondly, the male may only feed the female a few times a day, so a wait of several hours is not unusual. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing the male sitting snoozing on a hummock having clearly fed the female shortly before you arrived! And when he does finally appear and the female rises to meet him, she can be almost invisible against a background of moorland or trees. Lastly, when she flies back to the nest and you mark the spot as best you can at long range, if the route there is through trees or in undulating ground, you lose sight of any landmarks you may have noted.

However, approaching the target area, hoping you are still on the right line and suddenly flushing the female from the nest brings a feeling of considerable satisfaction. A quick count of the eggs and then away as quickly as possible. Leaving the nest site quickly is not only best for the female and her precious eggs, but also reduces the number of times she hits you, hard, on the head as she angrily dive-bombs the intruder. Having had blood drawn on a couple of occasions, a hat is now obligatory!

I may look forward to the geese coming each autumn, but I equally look forward to my harrier watching each spring.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.