Monday, 20 April 2015

13 - 19 April 2015 Is this a Special Protection Area?

Sun in the blue sky, light winds, hardly a cloud to be seen - what a week it was for watching the six pairs of Hen Harriers in the Stacks to the Mullaghareirk Mountains Special Protection Area that we have singled out for reporting to you through the Hen Harrier diaries. Lots of circling, soaring, dancing and loving by our birds this week! The young pair, pair 6, were especially energetic with both male and female giving as good as they could on the dance floor! We couldn't help but christen the female of this pair as Penny - she is like a shiny new penny!

Last week was made all the more enjoyable by a realisation of just how many Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs have now come to the area from Africa and the Mediterranean. These very welcome visitors add great sound to the locality, and when they breed in numbers, can be a very important part of the local Hen Harriers' diet. Like many birds of prey, Hen Harriers chicks don't hatch or fledge until later than most of their prey species, giving their prey ample opportunity to rear lots of young in advance, meaning that there is more food (prey) available when the harriers need it most (when there are hungry mouths in the nest!).

Willow Warbler - a very welcome summer visitor

Right now is also a very important time in the breeding season as regards food supply - when the adults are pairing off and selecting their territories. The harriers will look for an area with good habitat and food supply for the season ahead - a very important call at such an early stage. Also, the amount of food the females take in at this time will determine how many eggs they will lay - an ecological adaptation to adjust for the amount fo food available. If its looking like a good year ahead for the female, she will lay a good amount of eggs, maybe 5 or 6. If its not looking so great, she may limit this to 3 or 4 eggs. Obviously this has implications for how many young the pair can possibly rear this season. So its great that there has been a good influx of migratory prey species at this important point in the season. We haven't yet seen any food passes this season, but expect to soon, as well as nest building! We have seen all pairs 1-6 show particular interest in particular patches within their territories, such as patches of bramble or gorse, heather or failed patches within forestry.

Has anyone seen any food passes or nest building yet??

There were a couple of things that made us wonder if we were in an SPA for these birds.

Firstly, there was lots of habitat being cleared out - especially the bright yellow furze bushes that add such colour and aroma to the countryside at this time of year. Diggers from the celtic tiger era have certainly found a new home in the uplands - it is clear that much of this is being forced on the farmers by threats of reduced farm payments for having scrub on the land.

Secondly, the amount of fires this week (as in the last few weeks) was horrific. Massive fires that blazed their way through the heather moorland and scrub for hours and hours - one was seen to start at noon on Saturday and was still blazing when the sun came up on Sunday - 19 hours of a fire and thousands of acres destroyed. We haven't seen this reported in any media. This has all become so commonplace now - that doesn't mean it is to be accepted - far from it! This fire took out much of the territory of Pair 3 that we are following. Off to a really difficult start before they even got started.

Much of the territory of Pair 3 has been turned into dust. Red Grouse, Curlew and lots of Meadow Pipits believed to have been wiped out by this illegal fire.


Thirdly, there hills were deafening this weekend by the sounds of a car rally. This is a really sensitive time for the birds in terms of selecting nesting areas and when lots of noisy rally cars are in the area at this time, it has the potential to disturb prospecting pairs. It would be great if the rally could be held a few weeks earlier or later to give the birds that window of opportunity to get settled in, or design the stages in a way that takes them away from traditional nesting areas.

Hopefully this week we'll confirm all birds are still present, despite all the noise, fires and habitat clearance.

It really was a joyous week to be out on the hills with these special birds. This week, we hope to hear our first Cuckoos of 2015, see our first food passes and hopefully even some nest building. The weather is promised good again!

Stay tuned for further updates!

Hen Harrier Ireland.


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