Hen harriers

The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy trying to juggle 2020VISION office work with several photographic assignments. This week alone I’ve photographed hen harrier, white-tailed eagle and black-throated diver and have spent a total of 59 hours in various hides. And I have the bruises to prove it! But its been great – really great and it’s what nature photographers live for – extended time out in the field in the company of wildlife.

I started work on the harriers in mid-June in collaboration with Glen Tanar Estate, who incidentally have the only known pair of breeding harriers in north-east Scotland. I met up with Colin Maclean from the estate on a typically damp morning and we headed up a long steep land rover track deep into the hills. A patchwork of heather moorland extended in every direction for this is prime red grouse country and most of the estates on Deeside provide grouse shooting as part of their activities. And for this reason alone, harriers in particularly are not welcomed, such is their penchant for taking young grouse especially when they have hungry chicks to feed.

So, it was very refreshing to talk to Colin about the Estate’s more pragmatic approach to dealing with what is most often perceived as a ‘problem’. It may be ‘just’ a single pair of harriers on the estate but even this can make quite a dent in the red grouse population during the course of a breeding season. To try to alleviate some of the grouse predation, and at the same time turn the presence of the harriers into an attractive ‘product’ for photographers, Colin has been putting out chunks of venison (also from the estate), which the female has been feeding to the chicks. As the larger bird of the pair it is often the female that predates the most grouse, and so by providing this supplementary food supply her hunting forays are reduced, and so then is the impact on valuable grouse stocks.

Arriving at the site, Colin already had a hide in place. At which point I should mention that this was provided by my colleague Pete Cairns and I should have known it would have been in less than favourable condition. And indeed it was. One pole was jammed at half height and another wouldn’t lock into its full height position, which left just two poles at 5 feet and two at 3 feet and a hide barely fit for purpose. The prospect of spending 12 hours with my head jammed against the roof of the hide, bent double trying to look through a two inch opening for an approaching bird was not very inviting! Don’t worry I’ll get my own back sometime!

The nest itself was out of view  in deep heather where there were four well grown chicks already partially feathered up and starting to flap about as they strengthened their flight muscles. My job was a simple one in theory – to photograph the female as she approached the nest. However, I knew from past experience with harriers that they often sneak into the nest quickly and from any direction so vigilance on my part was paramount. With the female in my sights I could keep track of her movements but I’d lose her every so often, which brought about mild panic, constantly checking each of the ‘port holes’ to try to spot her approaching. Several times I missed her and she dropped in unexpectedly. With a bird that feeds every few minutes like a blue tit this is no big deal but with a harrier that only feeds every hour or so each missed opportunity means another long wait for the next chance.

After the first day I had secured some successful shots of the female coming into the nest so job half done. The next morning I slipped into the hide at 0415 so as not to disturb the female from the nest. During the morning both the male and female were hunting well bringing in 7 items of prey between them – a mix of pipits and grouse (both red and black). At midday Colin returned along with Roy Dennis who had come to ring and fit satellite tracking devices to the chicks. This had been very successful last year in tracking the birds movements, with one bird returning to Glen Tanar Estate in spring having roamed widely . This progress of this year’s chicks (and other raptors) can be followed on the Raptor Track web site.

On leaving, Colin left some venison on a nearby rock hoping that the female would take it for the chicks and provide me with some different shots. Back in the hide I didn’t have to wait long and as soon as Colin and Roy were out of sight, the female honed in on the food. By now the day had turned from clear blue sky to a heavy drizzle but the light remained good and I enjoyed a frantic few minutes of photography as they female returned to the rock several times in quick succession. Once the food was gone things quietened down and with the rain getting heavy, the female settled down to brood the chicks and I sneaked out the hide and headed for home eager to see the results.

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15 Responses to Hen harriers

  1. tony hamblin says:

    Hi Mark, palpable stuff as always at such a site what a shocking hide not very comfortable for a long vigil nor easy to keep checking from!!
    Good to
    hear of the keepers attempt to keep Hen harriers and Grouse a difficult task but seems to work with the feeding to allay attacks on the Grouse.
    Stunning heraldic pose.

  2. Tadas says:

    Images are awesome, Mark! Really beautiful birds and you have photographed them very well. I love the light, especially in the last shot.
    And 12 hours in a cramped hide!.. I know what’s the feeling when after less than one hour your back hurts. 12 hours is a real challenge, I’ve never been in a cramped hide for so long. Now my favourite way of hiding is lying on the ground under the net whenever possible – that causes no pain! 🙂

  3. Thanks for writing this article Mark. It is great to see these beautiful birds. I can imagine Peter sitting is his newer luxury hide having a smug look on his face !

  4. Mmmm Petes 5ft something your 6ft and the rest in that tiny hide!!
    A cracking portfolio of images in difficult conditions, you certainly put the hours in and were rewarded for it!
    I seem to remember as Austin said that Petes new hide has arrived,hand me downs ?


  5. Edwin Kats says:

    What a great pics and dito story. Great read Mark!



  6. Peter Cairns says:

    Oh do shut up you whingeing old git! You know where you can shove your half-height pole! Cracking shots but so ungrateful. And Craig, it’s 5’9″ as it happens.

  7. Jules Cox says:

    A great read Mark supported by some cracking shots of this much persecuted raptor. What a refreshing approach taken by Colin and the Glen Tanar Estate. Is it too much to hope that other estates may adopt a similar view and we start seeing a change in attitudes.

    As for the hide, I’m more concerned that it looks like its been made out of an old pair of Pete’s curtains : D

  8. Brett Lewis says:

    A great story and images to compliment.. Nice to get the funny side of using the old hide to.. But I do agree, why do we put ourselves through it? However, the images tell us why.. Nice work Mark.

  9. Mike Groves says:

    Superb images Mark.
    I sadly miss monitoring these fantastic raptors in Angus. A hunting harrier over moorland to me gives this habitat the ”X-Factor”.
    I ask the question why can’t we adopt a common sense approach with this particular raptor?

  10. Great shots indeed Mark from a hide like that!
    So sad that money from grouse-shooting once again overules any wildlife concerns . . .
    Reminds me of the Blackcock hide at Langdon Beck – took the 500 but no room to put it up on the tripod and certainly not enough headroom to sit on a stool. Ah, the delights of sitting on frozen boggy grassland in Teesdale!

  11. Shaun Boycott-Taylor says:

    Hi Mark,
    Great images and story the effort was well rewarded with superb images. Trust Mr Cairns to supply a duff hide.
    Still somebody has to do the donkey work :D, beats computer work any day!

    Nice to see some Estates taking a kinder stance towards Raptors.


  12. Cracking images of what must have been a fantastic experience but I genuinely doubt that I have ever seen such a pathetic looking hide. It must have cost all of a tenner from some 1970’s army store but still, it blends in seamlessly!! Money well spent Pete!

  13. This unique article, “Hen harriers | Mark Hamblin Photography” displays that you understand exactly what you r writing about!
    I really totally agree. Many thanks -Kimberly

  14. Mark Hamblin says:

    Hi Tawanna, Thanks for comment but not entirely sure what you are asking?

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