Life

Take on Nature: Growing concerns about one of our most wonderful birds of prey

The sight of a hen harrier soaring through the air before dramatically diving down during its thrilling skydancing display is an iconic sight

IN A Belfast city centre car park last week a distraught bird hopped between the cars, uttering an occasional self-pitying squawk.

Its feathers were splotchy and unkempt and someone wondered if it was injured and was there anyone who could be called to assist it.

On a nearby rooftop a beady-eyed gull, its white and grey feathers immaculately groomed, perched and watched what was happening, issuing a warning screech if anyone got too near the distressed bird.

The fledgling looked quite un-gull like, with its messed up, mottled feathers and its squawk not as shrill as its parents.

As it flapped in an 'it's just not fair' sort of way on the ground it was behaving a bit like an obstreperous teenager that was used to spending all day in bed and waiting for its prim mother to bring dinner to its bedroom.

The mother had clearly had enough and was, in gull language, telling it: "You get your backside in gear young man, go out and get a job and start fending for yourself."

Occasionally the fledgling tried a few flutters of its wings, not quite getting off the ground or, as its mother's glare seemed to suggest – "It's not a case of can't as won't, you lazy wee skitter."

However, despite its version of tough love, the mother was clearly not prepared to totally abandon her offspring until it had learned how to properly fly and seek out its own food.

Parents of young gulls have been known to attack humans who get too close to their chicks – defecating and vomiting on them and even dive bombing.

It says much about the hardiness of gulls that they can thrive in an industrial landscape, albeit just over half a mile from the sea, as the crow – and indeed the gull – flies.

However, many other species of Irish bird have been less able to adapt to modernity.

The RSPB has flagged up concerns about the decline of hen harriers in Northern Ireland, with just 46 breeding pairs left in the region, a fall of 22 per cent since 2010 when there were 59.

According to BirdWatch Ireland in 2015 there were an estimated 108-157 breeding pairs in the Republic, a decline of 8.7 per cent since a 2010 survey which recorded 128-172 pairs.

While the situation in Ireland is grim it is at crisis point in England where the RSPB survey found that the hen harrier is on the brink of extinction as breeding species there fell from 12 pairs in 2010 to just four pairs last year.

Claire Barnett, conservation team leader for RSPB NI, said: “The hen harrier is one of our most wonderful birds of prey. To see one soaring through the air before dramatically diving down during its thrilling skydancing display is an iconic sight and one that will always take your breath way.

“These are sights that we should all be able to enjoy. Unfortunately, we are being robbed of the chance to see these beautiful birds flourish. The reasons for the population changes are likely to be a combination of factors including change in habitat which may affect prey abundance, and opportunity for predators.

“There are also further risks to the population from persecution and the recent dramatic impact of the wildfires in our uplands.”

The RSPB is supporting a ‘Hen Harrier Day' event in Glenarriff Forest Park in Co Antrim today.

It is being hosted by the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) and is coordinated by Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC).

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