Sunday, 30 June 2013

Birds of East Kent: Marsh Harrier

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

Marsh Harrier

This bird of prey (the largest of the harriers) is one of the showpiece species of East Kent (maybe even of the whole county) and the RSPB website rightly lists Stodmarsh (where it can be found all year round) as one of its strongholds. Indeed, a visit to Grove Ferry / Stodmarsh doesn't feel complete without a sighting of one of these majestic birds gliding over the reedbeds in search of prey. And yet, for all the times I've seen them, I've still to acquire what I consider a really good picture. You'd think, for their size and languid flight, it would be easy to see them approaching, but they have a knack for suddenly appearing out of nowhere and then either plunging into the reeds or spiralling up on a thermal. You may not know where they are, but they always seem to know where you are.

Marsh Harrier comparison

Male and female Marsh Harriers are fairly easy to tell apart; males (above left) are lighter, with characteristic dark wing-tips. Females (above right) are bulkier and darker, with cream-coloured crowns. Juveniles appear similar to the adult females, but are distinguished by their golden crowns.

During the breeding season, male Marsh Harriers show off to the females with spectacular displays of sky-dancing (and if the wind's blowing the right way you can hear them calling to each other). This aerial prowess serves a valuable purpose later on as the male will be required to pass food to the female in mid-air rather than bring it directly to the nest. These food items are usually small birds as far as I've been able to tell, but I imagine the ubiquitous Marsh Frog must make up a large part of their diet.

Marsh Harrier (+ food pass)

My most memorable sighting of a Marsh Harrier came - ironically enough - not at Grove Ferry, but at Minster a few years ago. I set off on what I thought was going to be a clear sunny morning, but arrived on the marshes to find the whole area shrouded in a thick bank of fog. As I walked alongside the river waiting for the sun to break through, a large shape rose out of the mist just twenty feet away and I found myself face to face with a Marsh Harrier. It flew gracefully in front of me and disappeared into the fog on the other side of the river. I didn't take any pictures (they wouldn't have come out anyway), but on that occasion it was just a privilege to get that close to one of Britain's most captivating birds of prey.

See also:
More of my Marsh Harrier photos on Flickr
Marsh Harrier (RSPB)
Marsh Harrier (Birdforum)