Monday, 21 July 2014

Hen Harrier research in the field


Hen Harrier nest cam Slieve Blooms - fascinating insights as to behaviour at the nest (Photo credit: Jason Monaghan, NPWS)


Hen Harrier juvenile wing tagging in the Slieve Blooms - lets hope she is seen again and even returns home to breed (Photo credit: Jason Monaghan, NPWS)

Applied Conservation Research - the best type of research. Those working in the field to gather information on declining populations such as the Hen Harrier in Ireland give vital information as to what is happening to the population, why it is happening and what needs to be done to secure Favourable Conservation Status.

The Slieve Blooms is the most central Hen Harrier population in Ireland and is of particular interest. Here, they are associated intimately with Irelands largest State owned nature reserve - with over 2,300ha of heather moorland and they use this natural habitat exclusively for nesting.

Some fascinating insight has been gained into the behaviour of Hen Harriers in the nest due to work carried out this summer by NPWS, by using special nest cameras. A wing tagging programme initiated by NPWS and the Irish Raptor Study Group in 2006 has continued and this year young birds in the Slieve Blooms were fitted with sky blue tags on their left wing and white tags on their right wing. To learn more about wing tagging click here
To learn more about the research in the Slieve Blooms, click here

If you would like to become involved in applied conservation research - the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey is looking for people to report sightings of harriers from now until April. There is also the opportunity to find and watch Hen Harriers at their roosts.

Contact harriers@ahg.gov.ie if interested.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Hen Harriers suffer major losses to predators

This is the time of year when young Hen Harriers are beginning to fledge. What a joyful time and what an uplifting experience to see these youngsters, with their dark chocolate brown backs and cinnamon underparts, twist and turn playfully at one another as they wait for their mom or dad to return with food. Up they'll rise and take the food in the air, just like the specatcular food passes from the male to the female earlier in the breeding season. It truly is a sight to behold and treasure.

However, each year it is becoming more and more apparent that the parents are finding it next to impossible to rear their chicks to the stage that they can fledge. Every year, the majority of nests fail. This means every following year, there are less Hen Harriers and a number of areas are now devoid of Hen Harriers. Where will it end?

One of the main causes of nest 'failure' is predation. Fox, Mink, Pine Marten, Hooded Crow and Magpie are seen as the key species involved. The change from open moorland and extensive farmland to forestry in many of the Hen Harrier areas has benefited those predators and put rare breeding birds like Hen Harriers, Curlew, Red Grouse etc. at a major disadvantage. Not just a disadvantage in the case of Hen Harriers -in fact a death trap. If a female harrier nests in young forestry because of the tall vegetation that grows between the trees (sometimes this is the only potential nesting habitat given it was planted on a bog they would have naturally used) there is a good chance she is in a precarious situation, surrounded by predators with very good noses. This is what is called an Ecological Trap.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Heather back at HQ, new chicks to be tagged tomorrow

Last week saw Heather visit Knock airport, but she has since returned to her main territory in the last few days. This ground must be so familiar to Heather now. She hunts the same lands every day and roosts in the same place every night. The habitat here is fantastic and one would wonder why there aren't any breeding harriers there.

Tomorrow (Monday 07 July) sees the first young Hen Harriers of 2014 being fitted with tags - this time wing tags. This will happen in the Slieve Blooms - one of the most important parts of the country for these magnificent birds. Wing tags don't give the regular updates and insight that satellite tags do, but they are useful nonetheless. It is vital that members of the public keep and eye out for these birds and report the sightings. This year the birds in the Blooms will be fitted with a white right tag and a sky blue left tag. To learn more about wing tags, click here and To learn more about the Slieve Blooms Nature reserve, see here

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ready for Take-Off!

Since mid-May, Heather has enjoyed a most productive stay in a moorland and extensive farmland area of Mayo, not far from Lough Conn. Here, she has used an area of domestic turf banks as her base, hunting the willows of that bog and the rushy fields and moorland of the surrounding landscape each day on a regular and familiar route (which incidentally took her into Peregrine Falcon territory!). She has been seen in the Lough Conn area on more than one occasion and some digested pellets found at her roost have been collected to allow analysis of her diet (more to follow when anaylsis complete). We're all glad to see that she has done well in this area and was looking fine and healthy when last seen.

Now however, she has decided to up sticks and move further east, though still in County Mayo.

The map image below provides some fascinating viewing - each dot is a locational fix for Heather's movements on both 27 June and today, 29 June. It is clear to see that she is showing a preference for moorland, as is the norm for Hen Harriers. However, it is the long strip of tarmac in amongst the dots that probably draws most attention - that is Ireland West Airport Knock!! Imagine the red dots as Heather - an airborne creature representative of wild Ireland, completely juxtaposed with airborne technology representative of human endeavour. Amazing stuff.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Misleading article in Irish Farmers Journal heaps further bad press on Hen Harriers

This blog was established to educate and to increase awareness of Hen Harriers in Ireland, their ecology, their uniqueness and the factors influencing their conservation, given the population has experienced significant declines and harriers continue to be lost as a sight from our landscape. The politics involving various people has not been entered. However, an article by Forestry Editor Donal Magner in this week's Irish Farmer's Journal, infringes greatly on educating people as to the reality of Hen Harrier conservation and ecology in Ireland and needs to be addressed. Mr. Magner has written a number of such articles through the years, with all his articles promoting great benefits to Hen Harriers from commercial forestry, when the reality is clearly the opposite.

This time, Mr. Magner is giving out about the fact that tax payers money is no longer being used to grant aid the afforestation of what open land remains in Hen Harrier Special Protection Areas (which are already at saturation point or beyond in terms of forest cover). Mr. Magner refers to this land as 'suitable forestry land', apparently ignoring the fact that it is High Nature Value land, without which we as an Irish people would lose even more of our native flora and fauna - as has been the case over the past number of decades when the same type of land has been drained and planted with Sitka Spruce and other non-native commercial plantations.

The Irish Farmers Journal article points to a line on a guidebook to birds in Ireland, published over 30 years ago in 1981, and takes from this that forestry is the saviour of Hen Harriers and there should be more of it. He says forestry is "long regarded as the greatest land use to conserve the hen harrier". According to Mr. Magner, the forest plantations (which are home to high densities of hooded crows, magpies, fox and pine marten) provided refuge from predators! Mr. Magner infers that had land remained open and had not been planted, the Hen Harrier would have become extinct in Ireland. Harriers are a bird of open country but perhaps Mr. Magner (a forestry consultant) knows their ecology and evolution better than Robert Simmons who wrote the book "Harriers of the World" or the late great Donald Watson (author of "The Hen Harrier", who wrote about the destruction of Hen Harrier habitat by forestry. Numerous peer-reviewed and published scientific papers, research theses and books outlining the clear negative impacts of forestry on upland birds like Hen Harriers are ignored in order to carry the point that Mr. Magner wishes to convey from the outset. This is misleading to readers who might not be otherwise informed.

It would be interesting to know Mr. Magner's thoughts on why the Hen Harrier population has crashed from 250-300 pairs in the 1970s (Watson, 1977, The Hen Harrier, Poyser Monograph) to just 128 pairs in 2010 (Ruddock et al., 2012, Irish Birds) - seeing as forestry, being the 'saviour' of Hen Harriers in Ireland has increased greatly in the same time...being planted on the habitat that Hen Harriers and various other now red listed species depend on.

Should anyone have any observations on the article in question, the editor of the Irish Farmer's Journal is Justin McCarthy - jmccarthy@farmersjournal.ie

In addition to Mr. Magner's unbalanced pieces, the editor has previously published letters from foresters advocating the benefits of commercial forestry to Hen Harriers and general bad press about the conservation of the Hen Harrier. It would be interesting to see if he is willing to present any alternative views.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Heather and Miranda the closest to each other they have ever been but neither breeding

This week saw Heather stay in Mayo, very much living up to her name by enjoying the heather moorland expanse that she has found in the Lough Conn area.

It also saw Miranda make a move from where she has spent the past months, to head to the Fermanagh/Donegal/Tyrone border, before returning east again into the heartland of Tyrone.

At one stage, the two girls were just over 100km from each other - and for these individuals we know that isn't a gulf in distance. It is the closest to each other that they have ever been, even though they have both found the same places (specific patches in the Lough Neagh area and NW Mayo).

It is clear at this stage that neither Miranda nor Heather are breeding.

It is vital that the females throughout Ireland that are breeding have a successful breeding season. Literally one should never count their chickens til they have hatched...or fledged in the case of Hen Harriers as the high risk of nest predation, especially in forest areas is always a concern. Let's wish them all the best in 2014.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Heather on an incredible new journey


Heather has made massive movements in the past 20 days and has found the exact location where Miranda spent the winter

To say that Hen Harriers never cease to amaze is an understatement. Heather had made her way back home, back to the heather slopes from where she started out in life last summer. In the meantime, she had been from the top to the bottom of the country and it seemed natural that upon returning home, she might settle back to the familiar mountain tops and farmland of East Kerry. What would not have been expected would have been a sudden move to Kilkenny, followed by a 212km leg (in a straight line, in Hen Harrier terms probably at least 400km of flying) to Mayo! And not just anywhere in Mayo, but the exact spot where Miranda from Scotland spent the entire winter up until just over a month ago. Imagine if the two famous girls had met each other!! As I say, Hen Harriers never cease to amaze. How did Heather find the exact same spot in the expanse of moorland that exists in NW Mayo? At the start of last autumn/winter, how did she find the roost in South Cork where she found other birds to stay with and learn from in her first and most testing months of independence? Last data shows Heather to visit the CĂ©ide Fields and there is nothing to say that she has found her destination yet, if she has one...




Heather finds the same ground as Miranda, though Miranda is now in County Antrim