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.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Hen Harrier Diaries

Welcome to the first installment of The Hen Harrier Diaries. Over the course of the next four months,I will share with you some news from six territories in the Stack's to the Mullagharierk Mountains Special Protection Area for Hen Harriers. This is being undertaken as part of a national breeding survey; but also to extend what has been a long running study of over half a century on these mountains. How these pairs will do in 2015, we have no way of knowing but fingers, toes and everything else crossed that they will make it all the way from now until the end of the summer and come out the other side with young chicks reared!

For the safety of the Hen Harriers involved, these pairs will not be referred to by the location they dwell in, but by numbers (pair 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6). The males will be known as Males 1-6 and their corresponding partners will be know as Females 1-6.

So for the past few weeks, a small team of us have been busy going out establishing which territories are currently occupied. this is one of the most exhilarating times of the year and we have been treated to some spectacular sky dances by the males and even one female who reached 111 peaks on one of her dance sessions!! One of the sights that really puts a lump in our throats is the male and female circling together on the thermals, rising and inter-weaving with one another as the sun shines through the feathers of the brilliant white male and the rich brown female, against a beautiful blue sky. It really is something to behold. Love is the air!!

So to introduce our pairs, with whom you will become acquainted throughout the season!

Pair 1. Heather' Mom and Dad. You will remember Heather, who was born and reared in 2013 and targeted and shot in South Kerry in January 2015. Heather had travelled the country and brought so many people closer to Hen Harriers, as well as providing much needed data on the ecology of the species in Ireland. Well, Heather's parents are back for another try this spring and summer, The male has been sky dancing and has had to ''escort'' another male harrier who may been eyeing up the female. Good on him, he loves his girl and his territory! this pair have not had the best of luck and their usual nest location close to forestry, has been precarious and there have been a number of predation events over the years.

Pair 2. The Neighbours! While not yet confirmed for sure, we are hopeful that another pair will settle close to pair 1. we have had 2 females and 2 males in the area,so hopefully they will sort things out. This pair had their nesting attempt interfered with in 2014 when a well known forestry company were planting the ground right at their nest kept the adults away from the nest so long that the young died. Lets hope for better in 2015.

Pair 3. This has been a traditional nest site for a number of years now. The female tends to nest in amongst gorse scrub on a slope.Hopefully they will soon select their preferred nesting spot and start bringing nesting material for the breeding attempt that lies ahead.

Pair 4. Both male and female have been seen courting each other. they nest in an area where turf cutting is active and they were successful in rearing 3 beautiful young fledglings in 2014. Lets hope for more of the same this year!

Pair 5. The glen nesters!This pair nest in a secluded glen, which is very quite, apart from the beautiful sound of the Curlew! The male and female are considered real professionals and have been successful in rearing young for the past number of years.Once, the female was seen to carry a stoat in her legs!!

Pair 6. New kids on the block! A brand new '' out of the box '' female. born just last summer, has been seen in the company of an adult male. This is a very exciting prospect as this is a new pair and we wish them all the very best!

Stay tuned for various updates along the way .

Of course, feel free to share your own news also,BUT PLEASE DO NOT EVER GIVE ANY INFORMATION THAT WOULD DISCLOSE LOCATION  of these sensitive and rare birds of prey.

Bye for now!
Hen Harrier Ireland.