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Highland harrier video captures new behaviour

By Mike Merritt

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hen harrier
hen harrier

IT appears parent sharing has now extended to one of Scotland’s rarest birds of prey.

A conservation project in the Highlands and Southern Uplands has recorded protective fatherly activity never seen before in a hen harrier.

Using nest cameras, the project has filmed male hen harriers standing guard over nests, and a hen harrier brood being hunted by two species of owl.

The discoveries were made as part of Heads Up for Harriers, a Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW) Scotland project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Figures also show 30 young birds have successfully fledged on participating estates.

On two occasions, a male harrier was recorded spending up to 35 minutes standing over or beside a nest, guarding the chicks when the female harrier was away from the nest.

This is believed to be highly unusual harrier behaviour – usually, the only time a mother leaves a nest in the first six weeks is to briefly catch a food drop from the father. The male calls the female off the nest and drops food, which the female then catches to feed their chicks.

Professor Des Thompson, chairman of the PAW Scotland Heads up for Harriers group and SNH’s Principal Scientific Adviser, said: "This is exceptional. It’s the first time we’ve observed such behaviour by a male hen harrier, and the first time we’ve seen a hen harrier nest under attack by two other raptors, one after the other.

"As ground-nesting birds, hen harriers already face extra obstacles in order to protect their chicks. That’s why it’s so important that we crack down on persecution against these vulnerable birds, which already face so many challenges to survive."

Heads up Harrier project field worker, Scott Smith said: "These pictures tell an amazing story that helps us understand the kind of hurdles which hen harrier chicks encounter to survive. Nests can fail for many reasons: the Heads up for Harrier project is keen to learn everything we can to help hen harriers flourish in the future. The more information gathered about why some hen harrier chicks don’t survive, the more we can find ways to safeguard them."

According to the pictures from the camera, before the owl attack the mother spent eight days taking care of her five newly-hatched chicks, until she was scared off by a fox. The fox probably played a crucial part in the night’s events, as harriers aren’t likely to be flushed off nests by owls. The unattended chicks were surveyed first by a short-eared owl, and then killed by a long-eared owl.

The other field worker for the project, Brian Etheridge, added: "We’re also seeing new behaviour as part of the project. We’re surprised in this case that the long-eared owl didn’t take its prey away, but instead stayed at the nest for almost an hour. We haven’t seen an owl behave in this way before and can’t explain it at this point."

The Heads Up for Harriers project aims to help conserve hen harriers by using cameras to help determine reasons that affect chick survival.

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