Montagu’s harriers, the UK’s rarest breeding birds of prey, have started arriving back in the country for the summer after spending the winter months in tropical Senegal in West Africa, and the RSPB is asking the public to report any sightings of the birds to help identify new areas where they might be nesting.
Just seven pairs of Montagu’s harriers, known affectionately by bird watchers as ‘Monty’s’, nested in the whole of the UK last year. This is one fewer than in 2014, but scientists studying the birds hope that with the help of farmers, birdwatchers and people out enjoying the countryside, they can find more new Montagu’s harrier nesting sites this year.
Right now is the best time to see Montagu’s harriers as they engage in their spectacular airborne courtship display before they establish their nests and become more secretive. During the courtship, males will climb high into the air and then fold his wings and tumble groundwards in a show of aerobatic prowess designed to impress. Once a pair has chosen a nest site the male will pass food to the female in mid-air, with one or both birds flying upside down momentarily to make the exchange.
Mark Thomas, who leads on Montagu’s harrier conservation work for the RSPB, said: “A Montagu’s harrier’s display is spectacular and really special to witness. It’s so important for these birds that we can find the places where they are nesting and protect them from accidental damage, disturbance and persecution.
“Monty’s are increasingly nesting in cropped arable fields rather than reedbeds, so we’re especially keen to make farmers aware of them and hear from any who think they might have birds nesting in their fields, but anyone who sees one can help us make sure they have the best chance of successfully breeding and rearing their chicks by getting in touch to tell us about their sighting.”
Keeping track of a Montagu’s harrier’s affairs in Norfolk
One Monty’s nesting site the RSPB is confident it will be able to locate is that of ‘Roger’, a male bird fitted with a state of the art satellite tracking device last summer as part of an ongoing study to learn more about Montagu’s harriers’ migration and their breeding sites here in the UK.
Roger is one of six UK Monty’s to have been fitted with the devices since 2014, and it is this initiative that enabled researchers to locate the winter grounds of UK Montagu’s harriers in Senegal for the first time.
This year, Roger has returned to the same breeding territory he used in 2015, but his mate, a female named Rowan, only followed him as far as France. You could be forgiven for thinking this might have something to do with Roger’s less than honourable conduct during last year’s breeding season!
Mark Thomas explains: “We know that male Montagu’s harriers are very site faithful- they tend to return to the same breeding area year after year. They aren’t nearly as faithful to the females they mate with though, and one male can pair with several females in the course of a single breeding season.
“Last year, Roger actually paired with three different females, and this year he has returned to Norfolk without his main mate Rowan. It does sound a bit like a plot from a soap opera, but really it’s common for the females to choose a different place to breed from year to year and for males to have more than one partner. We just hope Roger will be able to find a mate or two this summer!”
Where are the rest of the UK’s Monty’s?
Britain’s population of Montagu’s harriers, small though it is, is fairly spread out across South, Central, and Eastern England, with known breeding territories in the South West and Midlands as well as East Anglia, so wherever you are in England, it’s worth keeping an eye out for them.
How to recognise a Montagu’s harrier
Montagu’s harriers are larger than a kestrel, with long wings and a long tail giving them a slender appearance. The males are plain grey, with black wingtips and a white underside. The females are mottled brown with a white rump.
It wasn’t until relatively recently in ornithological history that Montagu’s harriers were first properly recognised as a species distinct from their close relative the hen harrier by their namesake Lord Montagu, in the early 19th Century. Before that time, people mistakenly thought the small grey male hen and Montagu’s harriers belonged to one species and the larger brown females to another.
Call the Montagu’s harrier hotline
If you are fortunate enough to see these breathtaking birds, please contact the hotline to let the RSPB know.
Sightings of Montagu’s harriers can be reported to the RSPB’s Wildlife Enquiries team by calling 01767 693398, 07803 241452, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Details should include the date and time of the sighting, (six digit grid reference if possible) and a contact telephone number. All reports will be treated in the strictest of confidence.