Hunters on the marsh playing out a drama
THE expanse of the Ribble estuary beyond Southport appears to get larger as the days get shorter, but that’s okay, it forms the backdrop to one of the best winter dramas you can hope to see.
We set out to enjoy it on a recent Green Sefton walk, heading north from the site of the former sandplant by Marshside RSPB on a rising tide.
The weather was cool and grey, but the birds that winter here were still magnificent – thousands of Pink Footed Geese graze or commute over the area, Black Tailed Godwits, Lapwings, Snipe and other waders take advantage of milder coastal conditions and three species of Egret can be seen most days.
We were searching for hunters during the walk though, with Peregrine, Merlin, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Hen and Marsh Harriers all regular at the moment.
These raptors target a variety of prey, reflecting the biodiversity of the vast estuary – Peregrines hunt wildfowl and waders (although a Pink Footed Goose was perhaps a bit ambitious for one young falcon we observed).
Pipits and Skylarks are chased by Merlins, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers, while rodents are on the menu for a number of these predators.
Hovering Kestrels will often plunge onto invertebrates if the voles or shrews aren’t popping their heads up.
The star of the show for us was one of the two Hen Harriers that have been patrolling the outer marsh here in recent weeks.
Both are males – one a superb grey adult, which sails over the vegetation on black tipped wings, the other a younger, browner bird, whose striking white rump shines out even at long range.
Unfortunately for the harriers – and for those who appreciate the worth of having such a spectacular creature gracing the landscape – these birds of prey continue to suffer from persecution, especially in upland breeding areas.
The days when a winter roost of Hen Harriers was an attraction on the Ribble estuary are a distant memory, as is the image of watching a few of these rakish birds sweeping in low over the marsh to find shelter for the night.
However, breeding numbers of Hen Harriers in the UK are swelled by an influx of wintering birds from the continent, so the birds on the Ribble at present may have travelled quite some distance to get here – we should value them as special guests.
The larger and darker Marsh Harrier is also a joy to behold as it quarters the marsh on broad wings often held in a deep “V” shape.
These birds of prey often prompt a “dread” amongst potential prey species, their presence betrayed by the clouds of panicking geese and waders rising before them.
This winter there are at least four Marsh Harriers around Marshside alone, but the species is also liable to be encountered anywhere on our agricultural hinterland too.
Pink Footed Geese may be a bit ambitious as a prey item for a hungry Peregrine; they make for a fine sight across the marshes of the Ribble estuary, with the southern Fylde coast in the background
A distant male Hen Harrier patrols the outer marsh
The Green Sefton walk birding on the Ribble
Larger and darker, Marsh Harriers are a more regular sight