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Eyes to the skies for returning hen harriers

By David G Scott

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Buzzard, kestrel… or hen harrier?

RSPB Scotland is asking everyone in Caithness to keep their eyes peeled for one of the UK’s rarest birds of prey as they return to their breeding grounds this spring.

Hen harriers are medium-sized birds of prey, similar to a buzzard but with a slightly slimmer appearance, with long wings and a long tail. Female and young hen harriers are speckled brown and cream with horizontal stripes on their tails. The most striking feature is the patch of white at their rump. Males are slightly smaller and pale grey with black wingtips. Both have a round, owl-like face.

Female hen harrier. Picture: Pete Morris
Female hen harrier. Picture: Pete Morris

As the weather warms up, these birds are becoming more visible as they start their long journeys away from their winter roosting grounds and up to the moors to breed. Hen harriers’ nest on the ground amongst heather or soft rush in upland areas. You maybe even lucky enough to encounter their skydancing display, a dizzying aerial show of rolls and dives, performed by either the male and female to mark their territory and demonstrate their vigour.

Hen harriers are the UK's most persecuted bird of prey relative to its population size. Their Scottish population is of global importance, yet it remains far from stable largely as a result of illegal killing by humans.

Male hen harrier. Picture: Jack Ashton-Booth
Male hen harrier. Picture: Jack Ashton-Booth

The RSPB’s Jenni Burrell said: “We are calling on the public to email our Hen Harrier Hotline if they believe they’ve seen one.

"Hen harriers are beautiful and elusive raptors and, unlike peregrines and kestrels, they are rarely seen in urban environments. So if it’s perched on your fence, it’s probably a sparrowhawk, if it’s in a tree by the roadside, it’s probably a kestrel or a buzzad but if it’s over rough pasture or moorland, and matches the description above, then you might have seen a hen harrier.

“Sadly hen harriers are a long way from reaching a healthy, self-sustaining population, and this is largely down to persecution by humans. Particularly where land is managed for the purpose of driven grouse shooting, natural predators like hen harriers can be viewed as pests and, despite being legally protected, the shooting, trapping and poisoning of hen harriers is a serious and ongoing problem.”

If you think you’ve seen a hen harrier, please email henharriers@rspb.org.uk

Please include the date, time, location/grid reference and a description of the bird.

Results in for the Big Farmland Bird Count

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