‘It flies so low that sometimes it seems to be stirring the grass, its long legs trailing through the heather like a keel. A slow tacking flight: float then flap.’ This description of a Hen harrier’s flight pattern is from the library book I’m currently reading, Raptor: A journey through birds by James Macdonald Lockhart (4th Estate, London, 2016) and, by sheer coincidence, I watched a Hen harrier fly just like this yesterday.
I was at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, walking along the central hedgerow in the west paddock, on the lookout for winter thrushes, and had just walked down into a dip in the field when, with a loud whooshing sound, a large bird flew almost over my head.
I immediately turned and looked up, swung up the camera and clicked as many times as I could before the hedgerow blocked my view. Walking quickly up out of the dip, I watched the bird, pursued by a couple of Carrion crows, dodge eastwards, then veer back west and head down over the west lake reed beds and on towards the coast.
But what was it? It seemed quite large but I didn’t think it was a Buzzard. There had been a Sparrowhawk harassing the smaller birds a couple of days previously, but the flight didn’t seem right for that – not the flap, flap, glide that Sprawks are known for. This bird had been flying very low and relatively slowly.
I had been out walking for about 5 hours by this time and was getting cold, so decided to head home. Hot cuppa in hand, I grabbed by trusty RSPB Handbook of British Birds, transferred my photos on to my laptop and opened up Photoshop. As the day had been gloomy, the shots all needed lightening and heavy cropping to get a better look at the bird. When I consulted my handbook, I found a bird that matched but couldn’t believe it was right. Luckily, my birding friend John was online so I flicked him a message with four photos … and waited.
Yay! He confirmed the match, a Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), from its colouring either a female or a juvenile – it certainly looks exactly like the juvenile image in my book. This is quite a rare bird locally so I was absolutely over the moon to have seen this beauty.