Once common across Britain’s countryside, birds of prey are more of a rarity than you might think and an encounter with one is likely to leave a lasting impression.
From the speed and power of a swooping peregrine falcon to the grace of a red kite or the sight of a hobby catching insects on the wing, these majestic birds have inspired poets and artists for hundreds of years.
In the 1800s, raptors filled the skies of Britain in abundance but by the early 20th century these birds were close to extinction. Eggs were taken for collections, adults shot to protect game birds and numbers of sparrowhawks, who were seen as a threat to carrier pigeons and military intelligence, were also greatly reduced. By the end of WWI, ospreys and white-tailed eagles were extinct, with red kites reduced to just a few pairs. In the 1960s, the use of agricultural pesticides resulted in another wave of losses for the beleaguered birds of prey and by 1971 just a single pair of breeding marsh harriers were found surviving in Britain.
However, through years of conservation work, marsh harriers are making a slow, localised recovery in East Anglia and the population of these graceful raptors is now at its highest for 100 years. As a result, marsh harriers have adapted their breeding behaviour with some pairs nesting on farmland as well as traditional reedbeds which are in short supply due to habitat loss. Even more surprising, are the wintering marsh harriers which have resigned their African migration to remain in Britain all year.
This year at RSPB Titchwell Marsh our visitors have been able to watch these amazing birds throughout the seasons. In early spring males execute an exciting aerial display; circling high above their prospective mate they perform a series of steep, twisting dives and somersaults. Once paired, the harriers fly together with the male passing food offerings to his mate in mid air. The male will continue to supply food to her and the chicks throughout the breeding season.
Marsh harriers, deceptively elegant in flight, are in fact ruthless hunters and methodically patrol feeding grounds. Once a prey is in its view, the harrier will hover on fast-beating wings before dropping rapidly into the reedbeds or marsh to catch an unsuspecting rodent, fledgling bird or frog. These raptors are gregarious birds and in winter they return to their communal roosts at the end of the day. This daily ritual provides a rare treat for nature lovers who want to experience a close encounter with Britain’s largest harrier.
We are offering visitors a chance to join RSPB wardens on Wednesday, December 14,at 3pm to watch our marsh and hen harriers come in to roost for the night. You will assist with the roost count and learn why Titchwell Marsh is such an important habitat for these birds of prey. To stave off the cold and hungry tummies, visitors can enjoy a hot drink and snack with the wardens while continuing to watch our amazing wildlife from one of our hides.
For more information and booking requirements go to www.rspb.org.uk/titchwellmarsh.