Sunday, 29 September 2013

Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey starts this week - Heather still at her Cork roost

The Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey is now in its ninth season. Official roost watches start this week, on 01 October and each roost will be watched at least once a month from now until March, just before the breeding season kicks off again.

Just about everything that we know of the Hen Harrier's ecology and conservation during the non-breeding season stems from this national survey, which is co-ordinated and carried out by a dedicated team of surveyors, entirely on a vountary basis. If you would like to know more about the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey, click IHHWS

Hen Harriers often roost communally during the winter

We hope to make this season one of the best ever. Be sure to log any sightings with the survey co-ordinator. We are always looking for new volunteers to find and watch roosts to see how many harriers come in to roost. It truly is one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile surveys in Ireland today.

What happens during the non-breeding (or winter) season has direct bearing on our national population.
Consider our star harrier, Heather. If anything happens to Heather over the non-breeding season, then it is clear that this will mean another female harrier who could potentially rear young and sustain the population would be lost. If anything happens to Heather's roost in Cork, or more importantly if anything happens to the area that she is finding her food, what will happen?

This is why it is so important to (a) record any sightings (b) find roosts and (c) conduct long-term research to establish trends at individual roosts and overall across Ireland. This is what the people involved in the Irish Hen Harrier Winter Survey have been doing since 2005. What do we get in return? Some breathtaking encounters with wildlife, some amazing memories and the knowledge that our data is contributing directly to the conservation of one of our most iconic Irish birds.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Heather is 100 days old today!

Heather remains in her home range in South Cork. She seems happy here. It is great to see that she is the first Irish satellite tracked Hen Harrier to make it to 100 days old!!! She has had amazing journeys and stories so far, coming from a heather moor in Kerry to Kildare, Wicklow, Dublin, Louth, Meath, Armagh, Lough Neagh and finally settling on a wonderful part of South Cork, where waves crash against the cliffs and Gannets glide across the water. Here's to the next 100 Heather!!!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Heather makes herself at home in South Cork

Since arriving in South Cork after an epic journey from Kerry to Wicklow to Northern Ireland, Heather has set up a home range and appears to be making the most of her time along the southern coast of Ireland. A young harrier may travel in their first few months until they find a place that ticks all the boxes. They may then establish a home range, visiting the same areas on a daily basis before returning back to their roost every evening. Interestingly, Heather has found a friend in the form of a wing-tagged harrier now in her fifth winter. It is hoped that Heather will learn from this older bird, about where all the good places to go are.

Heather is in a good area for the two basic requirements of any young harrier's early days of independent life - food and shelter. The tillage landscape, including stubble fields of oats, wheat and barley provide food in the form of rodents. Hopefully no poisons are being used in these fields. In Ireland, tillage fields are not as big as they would be for example in Britain and the amount of hedgerows we have in our tillage landscape is very important in supporting wildlife also. It is important that the scrubby areas that have been left alone for years are retained as an important reservoir of biodiversity.

It is interesting to see that Heather is again making some short forays out to sea before returning again. Is she thinking of leaving these shores or will the draw of food along the south Cork coast keep her in Ireland?

One of Heather's daily runs in South Cork. Click to enlarge

Monday, 9 September 2013

Heather astounds!

Heather has now travelled from Kerry to Kildare, to Wicklow, to Meath, Armagh, Louth and now Cork!
Heather has astounded us with her latest movements. Having travelled as far as Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, she took a handbrake turn and headed all the way south to County Cork, on the southernmost shores of this island. Indeed she even travelled offshore for a while, leaving her roost on Saturday morning and heading 7km out to sea!! She turned back in again and spent the day hunting the tillage and beet fields along the coast.

Heather is now in good company too! She has met with an old friend of ours, a female that was wing tagged in 2009, now over four years old. How have they found the very same roost, more than 300km from Heather's furthest north roosting point? Did they meet up somewhere along the way, is this why Heather too a sudden change in direction? Is it weather driven (there were slight northerly winds for Heather's journey south)? Is it just hard-wired into the birds to travel to these destinations? Is it habitat driven (certainly both are in wonderful autumn harvest habitat now)? Is Heather thinking of leaving Ireland?

Stay tuned!!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Heather makes massive travels

Hen Harriers bring you on a roller coaster of emotion. 

Less than a week after the lowest low of finding Sally dead, the highest high - a close encounter with Heather - on the other side of the island!

On the evening of Friday 30 August, after telling the individual stories of Sally and Heather on Ireland's national radio station (to listen, click here), I headed straight for Wicklow Mountains National Park, where Heather had spent the previous two weeks on the heather moorland (poignantly, given the death of her sister Sally, she spent most of her time around an area called the Sally Gap). I stayed overnight in the national park and at 0400hrs checked the satellite data from Heather's tag to see where she was roosting in anticipation that I might be able to see her leave her Wicklow roost at first light. 

So, when I logged in to see where she was, imagine my surprise when I saw that she was in County Meath! I sat into my car and began the journey to the Royal County, through Dublin City with very quiet streets. I reached her roosting place just as it was getting bright and was afraid that I had arrived a little too late.. she may have already left. I stood at the gate of a field of freshly harvested oats and watched more in hope than expectation. At 0620hrs, there she appeared!! She was just taking off from the ground, flying over some oilseed rape and gaining height. The sight of this bird, now much bigger than when I saw her last, was enough to take my breath away! It is difficult to describe the feeling that came over me, seeing her there - the two of us over 250km from where we had last seen each other during the summer. A change of landscape from heather mountain and forestry, to tillage and oak trees. An awful lot of ground covered in between. She came back into view again at 0659hrs in front of a rising sun, being mobbed by two rooks as she glided beautifully over the same field.

Heather continued travelling in that direction and yesterday morning rose from roost on the shores of Lough Neagh, in Northern Ireland!! Over 300km from home, she was now far closer to Scotland than to her native Kingdom of Kerry. Incredible. At the time of writing, Heather has started to turn back south and is currently in South County Armagh, around Keady. We all hope the Armagh folk are good to this special Kerry girl!

Sally Dies

 There are no words that can describe the loss of Sally, because she represented so much. She represented herself - a beautiful young Hen Harrier; she represented her species and she represented the hopes of bringing the Hen Harrier's ecology and conservation in Ireland to the general public.

After leaving her heather nest, Sally was in explorative mood, covering large tracts of her native County Kerry and making the Stack's Mountains her home for some time before returning to her nest site further east to find her parents and siblings had long since departed. She continued into County Cork, travelling through the Duhallow area and then into County Limerick, where she spent less than a week before succumbing to starvation. She lay at the edge of a Cladium fen in West Limerick, unable to go on any further, exhausted and greatly underweight, almost half the weight she was on 13 July. 

The first steps in life for any bird of prey are fraught with danger and learning how to find and catch your own food is a most difficult skill to master. However, satellite tracking here is highlighting the disadvantages that Hen Harriers in Ireland are faced with on top of all this. Sally was just 72 days old on the day that she died. Of 10 Hen Harriers that have been satellite tracked in Ireland now, 0 have yet made it to 100 days old. In Britain, 70% of many more sat tagged harriers have made it past 100 days. 

There are no other words that can really be said, even a week on since Sally's death. It is hoped that her early fall, along with so many other young harriers in Ireland will highlight the conservation issues facing the species in Ireland.

All hopes and fears now rest with Sally's younger sister Heather.

Sally's Journey