This is a big one.
This time last week we’d just had one of those days in the field which will always live long in my memory. It all stemmed from a chance conversation about Blacktoft Sands, an RSPB reserve on the Humber estuary which I’m ashamed to say had never crossed my path before. Tales of breeding Bitterns and Bearded Tits already meant that a visit was going to be a must, and that was before I’d discovered that this year Blacktoft is also playing host to a pair of breeding Montagu’s Harriers! In recent weeks a single chick had fledged and reports were good that both it and the female were showing relatively well. Here was an opportunity I simply couldn’t miss and we headed straight across first thing Monday morning.
We were greeted by a very helpful volunteer who gave us a little background on the reserve, what was about and, perhaps most importantly, which hide offered the best chance of spotting a Montagu’s. We’d already seen a female Marsh Harrier quartering the roadside on our way in so hopes were definitely high. That sense of anticipation only increased as we settled down and immediately spotted a pair of Marsh Harriers out over the marsh. It was whilst following them that another raptor lifted into the air and straight away I knew that we’d hit the jackpot.
At first we were treated to excellent if distant views of the female but she was soon joined by the youngster and both of them spent a good long while quartering reedbeds out towards the main river channel. Both birds had significantly more slender wings than the bulkier Marsh Harriers but it was interesting to do a size comparison as both species came together briefly. The female Marsh Harrier was significantly larger than her partner, as you’d expect, with the female Montagu’s fitting somewhere between the two. Even better though was the behaviour we managed to observe with both species performing mid-air food swaps (it has to be said the young Montagu’s had a little bit more to learn in this regard). Truly spectacular and an epic couple of hours by anyone’s standards.
Even if Blacktoft had nothing more to offer I’d have left over the moon. After all it’s not often that one gets to see a brand new bird of prey. That was far from the case though with each hide offering a wealth of wetland species. Lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Ruff, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Curlew, Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper were all present and correct, not forgetting of course brief but dramatic views of a Hobby swooping through and putting the frights up the lot of them. There were also a very impressive number of Little Egrets (and that’s coming from someone who sees them on an almost daily basis) with at least twenty individuals spread across the various pools.
Then of course there were the species which had made their homes behind the flood defences which included a pair of Grasshopper Warblers that we heard reeling briefly and a large flock of at least forty Tree Sparrows! Several of the latter had young still in the nest but there were many more juveniles out and about making a right racket from the surrounding vegetation. I don’t know quite what makes the north of England such a successful location for the species but this was to be just the first in a series of sightings across the rest of the week. Such a shame that they are now seemingly extinct from my own local area including their last stronghold on Gower.
We finished off our visit in much the same way as we’d started by watching a pair of Marsh Harriers hunting over a field in the midst of being harvested. I only hope that the farmer was a bird fan as the views he was getting must have been absolutely breathtaking. There were also a pair of Roe Deer skulking along the hedgerow and then a mother Pheasant and her seven chicks popped up right in front of us. Not a bad way to sign off on what had been a truly excellent day. If you’ve never visited Blacktoft Sands before I highly recommend it and if the Montagu’s Harriers are still about? Even better.