Hen Harriers at Cottascarth
Published on Thursday, 28 June 2018 by Ann Marwick
On Sunday morning we took a walk, with Tim Dean and his birding group, up to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve at Cottascarth in the Rendall Hills to see if we could spot some hen harriers sky diving. Orkney is one of the few strongholds left in Britain. Scotland holds 80% of UK hen harriers , which is now Britain’s most persecuted bird of prey, and Orkney boasts approximately 80 breeding pairs compared to a staggeringly low of only 4 pairs in the whole of England! Cottascarth hide is a great place to view these incredible birds with a view out across the hills of Rendall. The hide is dedicated to Eddie Balfour, a legend of Orkney birdwatching (and also a distant relative of David, sharing Westray roots!). Eddie was Orkney’s first RSPB warden, and it was in the hills of Rendall that he first began his study of hen harriers – it developed into the world’s longest observational review of these remarkable birds. This time of year is perfect for seeing them sky dive. The ghostly grey males and larger brown females arrive back to their summer home in the heather moorland in spring and the male proceeds to attract a mate by ‘diving’ which involves climbing high into the air then falling and twisting down in an acrobatic swoop back up to begin the dance again!
We sat and ate our lunch by the burn that runs down from the hills to the shore, and watched a pair of raven fly above us. We also saw a couple of pairs of Greylag geese looking to nest somewhere nearby! Large numbers of these birds spend the winter in Orkney but recently they have become something of a pest with an increasing number, approximately 2,000 in 2016, staying on during the summer months to nest, instead of heading back to the northerns climes of Greenland and Arctic regions. The reason for this it seems is the improved quality of the grasslands and they can be seen in large numbers mostly feeding in arable fields or on harvest stubble.
For more information on Orkney birds have a look at The Orkney Book of Birds written by Tim Dean which is the most up to date and authoritative book on Orkney birds. It has beautiful illustrations of birds hand painted by Tracy Hall which shows the many birds that can be seen here, all set in recognisable Orkney landscapes.