It has been one of those little runs, where each birdwatching trip has turned up a species that I do not often see. Over the last three weeks it has been the Hen Harrier, with one or more individuals seen on each occasion that I have been out on the coast. First it was Blakeney Point, with two birds working the dunes beyond halfway house. Then it was Titchwell, again two birds but this time hunting the marshes out towards Thornham and, most recently, it has been Cley, with a single bird working the sea wall for Meadow Pipits and, quite possibly, Snow Buntings.
For me, the Hen Harrier is a bird of winter afternoons, watched coming in to roost at Stubb Mill or Warham Greens. To see them so well this much earlier in the year is a welcome bonus, a little run of good fortune.
The Hen Harrier last bred in the county in 1861 (at Horsey) and is now a passage migrant and winter visitor. Its changing fortunes mirror those over the country as a whole, a species that was once widespread but taken to the brink of extinction in Britain because of intense persecution. Breeding Hen Harriers take grouse chicks, along with Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, voles, Rabbits and young waders, and have therefore been shot, trapped and poisoned by generations of gamekeepers. As has been the case with other persecuted species, the population recovered somewhat in the 1940s but even now, with legal protection in place, it remains heavily persecuted. Its loss from its few English moorland breeding grounds for a second time remains a real possibility. Even on its wintering grounds the Hen Harrier is not safe from persecution; two were shot coming in to a roost in northwest Norfolk in the 2007/08 winter.
Those individuals that winter in Norfolk come from breeding populations in Wales and Scotland, joined by smaller numbers of birds from the Continent. Arrivals begin in September, peaking in October with further influxes later into the winter if weather conditions on the near Continent push birds further west. Perhaps a dozen or so favoured roost sites are used, the birds roosting communally on the ground in reeds or other vegetation. Research has shown that most roosts contain between two and 10 birds, often with other birds of prey present (such as Marsh Harrier and Merlin) but some can hold up to two dozen birds. As well as roosts along the North Norfolk coast, others can be found in the Brecks, the Fens and the Broads. Many birdwatchers visit the better-known roosts towards the end of a day’s birdwatching but seeing these magnificent birds on a crisp late autumn day is infinitely better.