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Harriers - Birds of the French plains

Harriers - Birds of the French plains

Wildlife expert Chris Luck examines the conservation efforts designed to protect three of our native harriers, all inhabitants of the local plains.

The plains of Poitou-Charentes and Vendée, whether they be the high open windswept areas such as those characterised by the areas to the north west and west of Poitiers towards Thouars and Parthenay or the vast low open wetlands of the Marais Poitevin and coastline, are especially suited to certain birds. Some of these are under severe pressure at the European and national level making our region particularly important for their continued well-being. Three Harriers in particular, the Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s, benefit from active protection and intervention measures especially with regard to reproduction. All three types of Harrier are easily seen as they make their slow low altitude passes over open spaces when hunting or moving to and from a hunting zone. They avoid trees and woodland at all times and roost on the ground and it is here that protection measures are focused.

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Marsh Harrier - Busard des roseaux

Nesting populations in France are concentrated on the west coast – the Marais of Morbihan, Loire Atlantique, Vendée, Charente-Maritime and Gironde with another small concentration on the French south coastal zones of Gard and Bouches-du-Rhone. Smaller numbers can be found elsewhere perhaps more so in the wetlands of Picardie and the great lakes of Champagne-Ardennes but it is the Charente-Maritime/Gironde population that is by far the most significant. Nests are made on the ground in wetlands, reed beds and cereal fields and eggs are laid mid-April – early May. As well as being targets for predators they are vulnerable to destruction by industrial reed cutting or harvesting and still, to some degree, human persecution. In total there are estimated to be between 1,600 and 2,200 breeding couples and their prey is mainly voles, young coypu, rabbits and rats although other small ground nesting birds and their chicks are also taken. There is a tendency for Marsh Harriers to move nearer to the south of France or to Spain for winter returning in March but this is sporadic and partial.

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Hen Harriers - Busard Saint Martin

These are a more widespread species of bird in France with a much larger range of potential nesting sites typically preferring heathland, large forest clearings and most importantly cereal fields these days as other habitats have disappeared. Unlike the Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, they tend to avoid the coastal wetlands (marais littoraux). Nests are made on the ground in low to medium density vegetation in March or April using grasses and plant stalks. Here they lay 4 to 6 eggs but this may be reduced or even arrested if there is insufficient prey available in years when there is a crash in the vole population. Other prey such as Quail and Partridge are taken which often causes conflict with hunters. Poitou-Charentes and Vendée host up to 20% of the French nesting Hen Harriers, the total number for France being estimated at between 7,800 and 11,200 breeding couples. As with the Marsh Harrier there is a tendency for some to move nearer to the south of France or to Spain for winter returning in March but this is sporadic and partial.

 

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Montagu’s Harriers - Busard cendré

Effectively, these birds nest in three main zones in France: Poitou-Charentes/Vendée, Champagne-Ardennes/Cote d’Or, and the Massif Central/Roussillon. Of these, Poitou-Charentes is probably the most important with the largest concentrations being in Deux-Sèvres and Vienne on the cereal plains. In April or May, nests are constructed on the ground hidden in medium height vegetation using small pieces of twig and stems where 3 to 5 eggs are laid. Nests tend to be in cereal fields (oil seed rape, wheat or barley), and less frequently on heath or large wastelands of the type that can be found in parts of Charente-Maritime. Prey is almost exclusively voles and the total number of breeding couples in France is between 3,900 and 5,100. This is a fully migratory bird that spends the winter on the savannahs of West Africa where they eat large insects and reptiles. They depart France in September and arrive back here in early April.

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Protection

Although they do nest increasingly in cereal fields throughout the Poitou-Charentes and Vendée, protection for the nests of Marsh Harriers is as much about preserving existing habitat as anything else. Since 2006, the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé (CEBC-CNRS) has had a program of wing tagging at four sites in Charente-Maritime to study their population and nesting dynamics.

Protection for the nests of Hen and Montagu’s Harriers is somewhat more complex. In a large part this is due to changes in agricultural practices, both the crops grown and the machinery used. In the past, crops on the open plains were more diverse with wheat and barley being spring sown and the land worked using small machines or by hand. The Harriers adapted to using these fields for nesting. When the Green revolution gathered pace, autumn sown barley and wheat crops were developed and there was the introduction of oil seed rape, also autumn sown in France. Farm machinery keeps increasing in size and crops are harvested earlier in the year which in most years will be before the chicks have fledged. This leads to large losses where no preventative action is put in place as the chicks are chopped up. With this in mind, the five ornithological associations of Poitou-Charentes and Vendée (Groupe ornithologique des Deux-Sèvres, the LPO Vienne, LPO Vendée, LPO Charente-Maritime and Charente Nature) collaborate in protection schemes that attempt to gain the support of farmers in the most important zones. This means spending many hours building relationships to convince individual farmers to agree to participate in an active monitoring programme which will include marking nests once they are identified. Sometimes, this can prove to be a lot harder than you may imagine with concerns that farm machinery will be damaged by any pieces of chicken wire or metal rods used for marking being left behind. As well, there isstill some ill feeling towards these Harriers as they take the occasional game bird, mainly Partridge. 

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Volunteers carry out most of the day to day work starting in spring by observing birds in the main nesting zones, recording those that are paired and then noting where the nest sites are located. Initially this means observing mating displays and aerial prey-passing. Later, males carry prey in their talons which they bring to near the nest site for the female. She will either fly up and the prey will be passed to her in flight or the male will place it on the ground a short distance away and she will fetch it. Having noted where she flies up from and returns to it is then possible to carefully locate the nest, mark it with poles and fix chicken wire protection against predators.

Regular monitoring of the progress of each nest continues through to fledging and abandonment of the nest site, usually around the end of July. At this time the harvest will generally be well under way if not completed. The Harriers have to find places to roost on the ground where there is a suitable density of ground cover and the occasional fields of alfalfa, lucerne, are excellent for this. Here the Harriers, more so the Montagu’s than the Hen, will form large communal roosts - a wonderful sight to see as they start to drift in at dusk. This provides the perfect opportunity throughout August for volunteers to methodically count and record the number, sex and age of the population with, most importantly, the number of the current year’s young.

As with most species there are good years and bad years, weather conditions at critical times and availability of prey can have a drastic effect on numbers and behaviour. 2013 was particularly bad due to a lack of voles and many couples didn’t even attempt to raise young, however with observations nearly completed, the good news is that 2014 is looking to be excellent.

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Get Involved

There are many ways in which you can help support the local bird population.You may wish to consider joining one of the associations below where you can participate in a range of activities. You don’t need to have any previous knowledge or experience.

Charente Nature:
www.charente-nature.org

Groupe ornithologique des Deux-Sèvres: www.ornitho79.org

SEPOL - Limousin: www.sepol.asso.fr

LPO Vienne: http://vienne.lpo.fr/

LPO Vendée: http://vendee.lpo.fr/

LPO Charente Maritime: http://charente-maritime.lpo.fr/

LPO Aquitaine: http://lpoaquitaine.org/

LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) is part of the global partnership BirdLife International alongside the RSPB.