Thursday, 13 February 2014

Species of the month: marsh harrier

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

With its impressive four-foot wingspan the marsh harrier is one of the largest and most spectacular birds of prey to be found in Norfolk. 

Marsh harrier, photo by Mark Ollett
The male has distinctive black and grey upperwings, which contrast with their chestnut back; females and young birds are a more uniform chocolate brown, with a creamy head and face. In flight they have a distinctive silhouette, holding their wings in a shallow, streamlined ‘V’.

Winter is an excellent time to see these magnificent birds as they drift languidly across the marshes and reed beds of the coast and Broads, scaring up flocks of waders and ducks in the process. However, given their chequered history, the species’ current relative abundance shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Marsh harriers were widespread in the UK prior to the eighteenth century, but extensive wetland drainage, egg collecting and persecution meant that their numbers fell dramatically and, by the end of the nineteenth century, the species no longer bred in England. Hopes were raised in the 1920s as the Broads were recolonised, but despite spreading into surrounding areas the species declined once again during the 1960s, as a result of poisoning by pesticides such as DDT. By 1971, only one pair remained in the whole of the UK.

Today, the species has made a remarkable comeback with around 450 pairs found across the UK. Around 75 of those are found in Norfolk, many of which are thought to have made their way over from the burgeoning Dutch population. The species now also over-winters in the county in sizeable numbers with the largest gatherings found roosting at NWT Hickling Broad, viewable from a special raised bank at Stubb Mill. Other birds of prey occurring at this site include the smaller and sleeker hen harrier and the merlin (the UK’s smallest falcon), along with almost the entire UK population of common cranes – on a fine winter’s afternoon the Hickling roost offers a spectacular wildlife spectacle. 

Marsh harrier in the Norfolk broads, photo by Mali Halls
To watch marsh harriers in cosier surroundings you could also head to NWT Cley Marshes, where you can usually enjoy great views of the birds gliding low over the reeds from the comfort of the reserve’s panoramic café.

Marsh harriers start to come in to roost from mid-afternoon at Hickling. Park in the NWT Hickling Broad nature reserve car park (NR12 0BW) and follow directions to Stubb Mill. A small charge applies to non-NWT members. NWT Cley Marshes is found just east of Cley village on the A149 coast road (NR25 7SA). There is free parking and entrance to the visitor centre and café, though a small charge applies to adult non-members for entry on to the reserve.

For more stunning images of marsh harriers, please visit our online gallery

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