7 February 2019

· Dee Marshes, Gayton ·

I drove here through atrocious weather, en route to Dad’s to celebrate his 84th birthday. Being early (deliberately, as usual), I decided to do some writing at the marshes in the car. The weather soon picked up: bright sunshine, but with a strong, cold northerly wind.

I don’t know what it was that made me look up from the screen of my iPad after about half an hour—I was probably searching for an appropriate word—but suddenly, there was a female hen harrier flying low above the marsh, about 20 metres in front of the car. Having learnt from my previous unexpected close encounters with hen harriers, I had my camera at the ready just in case, and was out the car and firing away in 10 seconds. They weren’t particularly good photos, but as good as could be expected, given the short notice.

Female hen harrier

The harrier’s outrageous white rump and banded tail-feathers were unmistakeable. Always such a thrill. She headed off slowly, northwards, along the edge of the marsh, into the wind. She was soon out of range of my camera lens, so I switched to binoculars, watching her as she banked to and fro, low above the reeds, setting startled teal, woodpigeons and waders to flight.

When she was about half a mile away, the harrier swerved suddenly, hovered, then dropped into the reeds. I assume her strike must have been successful, as I waited a good five minutes without seeing her rise again. Then the bitter wind drove me back into the car.

A short while later, I glanced up from my iPad once more to see a buzzard heading my way from the north with four crows in hot pursuit. Once again, I leapt out the car, camera in hand. But before the buzzard could reach me, the crows had forced it to land on the marsh. Flushed with success, their mobbing continued. Two crows landed a short distance behind the buzzard to stare at it menacingly; the other pair continued to dive-bomb the poor raptor, making sure to keep out of striking distance. After enduring about five minutes of this bullying, the buzzard sped off with the crows once again in hot pursuit.

Minutes later, the female hen harrier was back, about 400 metres to the north, tormented by her own solitary crow as she tried to hunt above the Phragmites.

I’m beginning to suspect the marshes might not be a location particularly conducive to work.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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