Monitoring Winter Roost Sites
I remember that, shortly after the Hawk and Owl reserve at Sculthorpe Moor had been opened, Roger Clarke, who was our Scientific Officer and accountant, made an appeal for volunteers to help monitor hen harriers that using a nearby inland roost from October through to March.
Roger organised a meeting in an upstairs room in a nearby pub and gave us a lecture on hen harriers at roost sites. He told us that most of the birds we’d see would be “ringtails” which were either immature males or females or adult females. If we were lucky we might see a beautiful silver-grey cock hen harrier.
It was about three o’clock when we arrived at the common. Roger led us to a good “watch point” and, binoculars poised, we settled down to wait. There was plenty of time for a good look round.
We were sitting on a hill looking out over the common which was enclosed by silver birch on the east side and by a mixture of silver birch and conifers to the south. There was a copse to the north where we had parked. It was open behind us. The common itself was largely covered by heather. In the centre was a damp, paler area dominated by Molinia grass and sphagnum moss. There were one or two stands of gorse. The whole area was dotted with silver birch seedlings.
Roger directed us to watch the skyline above the silver birch to the east. That’s the area from which the harriers would appear. Sure enough, about ten minutes later, a “ringtail” appeared and started flying to and fro along the tree line checking that the roost was safe. In no time at all it was joined by four others.
Re-assured, one by one, the harriers dropped down to fly backwards and forwards, lower and lower, over the pale damp area. The light was dying but one could still follow the action.
Now and then, a harrier would drop into its familiar roost site in the sphagnum moss. Once there was a commotion as a harrier dropped into a site already occupied. Both birds sprang in the air. There was a bit of a kerfuffle before the offender, probably a newcomer, went off to settle elsewhere. That was the first of many visits to our nearby inland roost site.
I remembered Stephen making a plea for more volunteers to monitor roost sites so that he has a better understanding of where Hen Harriers are and from where they are coming. Nigel Middleton (Conservation Office at HOT’s Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve) and I decided to revive Roger Clarke’s call for volunteers.
At the end of January 2016 Nigel, Neil Chadwick and I returned to our nearby inland site for a roost watch. It was a perfect day for watching; gin clear. We were in position by 3.00pm and at about 3.30pm the first “ringtail” appeared. It flew low S-N up the reserve, passed very close to us. It was in perfect condition, crisp chocolate-brown plumage with a pure white splodge at the base of its tail. There was no doubt that it was an adult female. It flew up and down before pitching in to land in the damp area.
Three other “ringtails” dropped in. Their arrival put up the original “ringtail” up and there was some flying up and down, checking everything out, before they all dropped into their usual roosting spots.
Finally, about a quarter of an hour later, two silver-grey male Hen Harriers broke the skyline at the south end of the common. As they dropped down they showed up well against the conifers. One of them was a full adult, the other a sub-adult, still with dirty brown patches on his wing coverts. It had been a superb afternoon’s watching.
Nigel and Neil will train up volunteers, not only to monitor our important inland roost site, but also those dotted along the coast.
Eventually we hope to send one or two volunteers with Nigel or Neil to help Stephen monitor winter roost sites up and around the North Pennine grouse moors.