Girton Birdwatch - June 2010
A couple of months ago I happened to mention to Dave Heath that I had never seen a Hen Harrier in this country ( checking my records I was mistaken, but my first and only sighting was at Minsmere in April 1978) something he thought he could very easily remedy. Consequently the evening after the change to summer time saw us on our way to Wicken Fen where I was assured I'd not only see Hen Harriers coming in to roost, but Woodcock also, a bird I had never seen here or on the Continent. (Although I've since learned that all I had to do was walk down the road to Oakington!). The signs were auspicious for as we entered the reserve a male Marsh Harrier floated towards us on characteristically upraised wings. We took up residence in the tower hide overlooking the fen and settled down to wait as dusk started to fall, amusing ourselves by watching a hunting Barn Owl, Cormorants settling in for the night in nearby trees and various water-fowl on the adjacent open water. Marsh Harriers of both sexes were everywhere. It wasn't long, however, before the promised Hen Harriers started to arrive. We spotted a female first, its brown plumage and streaked underparts difficult to pick out against the surrounding trees but then watched it lazily flap-flapping four or five times before gliding with wings half-raised and dropping suddenly into the reeds. The greatest thrill though was reserved for the dramatic appearance of a male, in all its pearl-grey glory broken only by distinctive black wing-tips, a mere 25 yards in front of us. By the evening's end we had probably seen about five of these beautiful - and increasingly rare - birds.
Rare? I have in front of me a book first published in the early 1970's which lauds the fact that only one bird of prey had significantly increased in number since the end of the 2nd World War, that bird being the Hen Harrier. Much of the credit for this increase was attributed to the measures taken to protect all our hawks and that the Hen Harrier, from being confined at the beginning of the twentieth century to the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides, as a breeding bird, had gradually re-colonised the Scottish mainland and gained a significant toe-hold in Ireland, Wales and England. By the '70's there were well over 500 breeding pairs in the north and west of Britain, the birds spending the season predominantly on the moors and in moorland valleys but also spreading to heaths and sand-dunes and, in winter, regularly visiting coastal areas and inland marshy areas like Wicken.
So what's gone wrong? The Hen Harrier's decline has almost certainly been driven by illegal persecution, especially by those with an interest in grouse populations amongst whom it remains 'one of the most reviled most persecuted and controversial of our raptors'. Although a specially commissioned enquiry in the 1990's concluded that raptors were unlikely to be responsible for the long-term decline in Red Grouse, it cannot be denied that harriers do take grouse and that the challenge is how to reduce their impact without resorting to illegal poisoning or the legalisation of lethal control methods, given that Hen Harriers are rare in Britain and currently declining across half their European range.
As dusk deepened, Wicken Fen fulfilled the second part of the promise made for it. If you haven't, like myself, seen a Woodcock in this vicinity then don't despair, because its plumage has been described as 'one of the best examples of camouflage in the world of nature'. Add to this the fact that it feeds mainly at night and spends the daylight hours in an almost trance-like stillness, then one can see why an evening trip to Wicken is almost obligatory. The Woodcock is a short-legged, large-headed wader with a long, straight bill which is larger and more rounded than the more normally encountered Snipe. I have seen it described as 'part bat, part frog, part nocturnal bird' but as the light faded at Wicken, and Woodcock started to explode out of the darkness all around us, I was reminded more of a motorised, and very large, Cockchafer beetle. My hearing problem meant that I missed out on another notable characteristic of the bird: the sounds it makes. Its flight is usually silent but when displaying, or 'roding', as these were, the male describes low circuits in weak zig-zag curves, grunting and clicking as it flies or, as one authority puts it, making 'two to five growling sounds, followed by a sneeze'. Walking back to the car it became apparent just how numerous Muntjac deer have become as our flashlight picked out their glowing eyes and distinctive profiles almost everywhere it was directed.
At present we have Swallows, Swifts and House Martins scything their way across Girton skies; Turtle doves have been seen and heard, as have Whitethroat, Willow warblers and numerous other summer migrants. Water voles have also been seen, but more of that later.