Hun­ters on the marsh play­ing out a drama

Midweek Visiter - - The Sefton Coast -

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

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