Raptors in the reeds

The reservoir rose above the neighbouring fields, its sloping banks covered waist high grasses, thistles and stinging nettles. The surrounding fields were black, with rich, fertile soil planted with bright green lettuce. Around the edge of this rectangular body of water a broad fringe of reeds sway in a gentle breeze. The leaves were packed close and vibrant green with this years growth. Beyond the reeds the bottom drops away and the rippling open water was clear, reflecting a bright blue sky above.

There was bird song all around. Whitethroat’s singing in the hedgerow, the onomatopoeic Chiffchaff song comes from a small copse along with the bubbling chatter of Blackcaps. Skylarks soar above the fields with its incessant, rolling and whistling song. Out on the rippling water Great Crested Grebes swim serenely, while a pair of Common Tern briefly dance across the sky.

In one corner of the reeds, just a few paces from the bank but so well hidden you would walk past it time after time, is a flattened patch of reed that makes up a nest. Sitting on this nest were four beautiful, downy birds of prey chicks. They have a dark eye, hooked bill and bright yellow legs with fearsome looking, pointed talons. The feathers coming through the white fluffy are chocolatey brown, with a hint of reddish brown on the top of the head. These are Marsh Harriers.

Stunning Marsh Harrier chick

Somewhat larger than Buzzards but slimmer with narrower wings and a longer tail. In flight they create a distinctive V shape by holding their wings up. Males are brown on the back with a paler head and neck, the wings are grey with black tips and the belly is gingery brown. The females are chocolatey brown with a creamy head, and as with most birds of prey they are bigger.

After decades of persecution and habitat loss, in 1971 there was just one nesting female in the whole of the country. Today, with years of conservation effort there are now nearly 400 pairs and they are spreading from their stronghold in East Anglia. Still mainly nesting in reed beds, some are now to be found nesting in fields especially rape. And although still predominantly migrants, with birds arriving in April to breed and then leaving in October to winter in Africa, many are now beginning to overwinter in the UK. Despite this recovery the species is still listed as Amber on the Birds of Conservation Concern and are a Schedule 1 listed bird on the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

This pair has been known to nest on this farm for a number of years but the nest has never been found. This year, once released from lockdown, there seemed to be a steely determination in Lee to find it, especially as sightings seemed to indicate the nest was in a reasonably accessible location. With the appropriate licence in place the search was on. Still it took a number of visits to pin point it, but Lee’s persistence finally paid off.

And so a week later we found ourselves sitting on the bank of the reservoir with four Marsh Harrier chicks between us. Each one is weighed and measured first in order to check the sex and to make sure the correct ring size is put on. Turns out this was an all male brood. Each chick was then ringed with a metal ring and given a wing tag, before being returned to the nest in the reeds.

The boys and their wing tags

It will be exciting to see these chicks flying around, to see if we get any sightings of our ‘gang’ and to find out if they stick around in the UK over winter and where they will return to breed.

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