Monday, 5 December 2011

A real HEN HARRIER treat


In line with the last two years, winter arrived in our region yesterday, with extremely cold winds blowing down from Greenland. Further north in Scotland, up to 20 centimetres of snow has fallen in Caithness, Sutherland, Highland Region and Speyside - the first significant falls of winter. It was another cold night here with an overnight ground frost and temperatures during the day hovered between 4 and 6 degrees C.

With a record number of HEN HARRIERS being seen in the Therfield area, I decided to devote the afternoon birding the area - that decision enforced after a Brent Goose - the first in Be3dfordshire this year - had flown off east from Stewartby Lake after just a short time of staying. Thanks to Mike Ilett, I was eventually able to make contact............


It was freezing cold watching from the layby at the top of Coombe Road and after half an hour and no raptors at all, I contacted Mike Ilett for advice. Mike knew the Therfield area well, having conducted much valued Atlas work in this area, and suggested I took the footpath leading east out of Therfield village, at the end of Mill Lane (at TL 339 376). This was excellent advice and after finding myself a sheltered spot out of the wind, about 200 yards east of the Icknield Way, scanning with the 'scope soon revealed the presence of no less than 3 ringtail HEN HARRIERS. In fact, all three individuals were favouring a strip of setaside just west of the Icknield Way at approximately TL 345 389 and were on view throughout my observation period over an hour mid afternoon. All three birds appeared to be juveniles, with varying amounts of heavy streaking on the underparts, ranging from light ginger to quite warm rufous. I concentrated on the outer primaries with all three individuals exhibiting FIVE fingered primaries - and therefore eliminating the possibility of being Pallid Harriers (of which 35 or more have appeared in Britain this autumn and over 300 in Scandinavia). All three birds had a broad wing structure, were quite heavy in terms of flight (not agile and light) and were long-tailed. They were invariably marked on both the upperparts and upper tail, with one bird having a reasonably noticeable greater covert/forewing patch and the other two much less so. The feathers of the mantle were noticeably pale fringed, with all three having well marked facial patterns and warm basal colour to the underparts. One bird that I saw better when walking down the Icknield Way did appear to have some paleness in the iride and was therefore likely to be a juvenile male. This bird like the others had a lot of warmth in the upper tail and a narrow buffish border to the tail tip.

I have never before seen three Hen Harriers in the county at one given time and knowing the scarcity of this raptor in Britain nowadays, this was a real treat indeed. Of course, they represented my first in the year in the county.

Walking this area produced a lot of birds: just over 100 Eurasian Skylarks in stubble east of Park Farm and a large covey of 23 GREY PARTRIDGES there; 240 lapwings, 38 European Golden Plovers and 4 Red Kites; also a nice Red Fox.

North of Hill Farm in Therfield, the FALLOW DEER herd numbered 122, including 5 stags and a number of fawn coloured individuals and one white marker animal.

A flock of 22 Chaffinches and 5 Yellowhammers were near North End but searching Deadman Hill and then the Wallington Road, failed as usual to yield any Merlin sightings (nor any Short-eared Owls surprisingly). Five more Red Kites were seen.

I also recorded 6 more GREY PARTRIDGES near Lannock Hill south of Baldock at TL 310 243

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