While driving over Salisbury Plain at the weekend, I saw a female hen harrier. I tried to photograph it, but in my haste I locked the doors of the car rather than opening the windows, and kind of fell over when I finally leapt out of the car to capture the bird before it flew away. In the end, I caught just about enough detail to confirm that it was a female hen harrier.
For various reasons, I then decided to review my other hen harrier photos – of which there are few: it’s a rare bird, and it’s only a winter visitor to these parts. How rare? The RSPB estimated there were 617 pairs in 2010; and that because of illegal killing and persecution, the hen harrier is in danger of extinction in England.
Why the persecution? The hen harrier predates fowl in open countryside; this brings it into conflict with the management of grouse moors, where the harriers can pick off the young grouse. Poisoning and shooting are a continuing problem for hen harriers.
In the winter months, the hen harrier follows its small prey, such as the meadow pipit, from northern upland to southern farmland. I have been lucky enough to see a hen harrier six times; three times during the winter of 2010/2011, and three times this year. In particular, I was lucky to get this photograph at the beginning of April this year, at Liddington Hill, north of Marlborough:
This is the clearest photo I have of a hen harrier. My first close photo of a hen harrier is slightly motion-blurred, but shows it flying low across the ground, which is its hunting method:
That photograph also shows the bold white, black and blue-gray colouring of the male, which can show up surprisingly well against a dark winter sky. The colouring can also be a bit confusing from a distance: I almost ignored my first distant sighting of a male hen harrier, believing it to be a gull. It was only the way that it flew, somehow different from a gull, that arrested my attention.
Still, my favourite harrier shot is the one at the head of this post, taken during the cold winter of 2010/2011. I can’t imagine I’m ever again going to catch a peregrine and a hen harrier in the same frame.