With just 360 breeding pairs in the UK, enthusiasts at Yorkshire Water’s Tophill Low Nature Reserve were delighted to see a pair of marsh harriers make their nest in front of a hide earlier this year.
Now there are celebrations at the site, near Driffield, East Yorkshire, as the first-ever pair of marsh harrier chicks to hatch at the reserve have evaded egg thieves and natural predators and have flown the nest – known as fledging.
Marsh harriers are on the UK’s “amber list” of species at risk of extinction, having almost died out in the 1960s, and normally nest on the ground among oilseed rape or wheat. So it was a surprise to everyone when a pair was seen at Tophill Low scouting for a nest back in March.
“We kept the news of the marsh harriers very quiet until we were sure the chicks had hatched in July,” says warden Richard Hampshire.
“The parents fought off an attack from a grey heron when the chicks were just two weeks old, so we are delighted and relieved that the chicks have been able to fledge.
“This kind of thing feels like the reward for all our hard work to make the site attractive to a wide range of species. It’s not just me, but a team of dedicated volunteers that help keep the site in the best condition for both wildlife and visitors.
“As the Marsh Harriers nested right in front of one of our hides we’ve also been able to keep a good track of what they’ve been eating. It’s great to be able to add to the records for this kind of thing as there’s lots of controversy about whether or not marsh harriers impact on game such as pheasants and partridges.
“Of course, we can only talk about what we’ve been able to record but game was just 1% of their observed diet, leading us to think this family at least isn’t having a major impact on local game populations.
“Their main diet was coot and moorhen, with rabbit also making up a good proportion of the food. Frogs, rats, ducklings, goslings, hares and water voles were some of the other things the chicks have been enjoying.
“Reserve members have also been able to get some fantastic photos and video of the birds, even capturing the moment when they exchange prey in flight.”
The marsh harriers are just one of the summer breeding successes at the nature reserve which his on the site of one of Yorkshire Water’s water treatment plants. Other rare and protected species such as Cetti’s warblers and otters have also successfully bred their young.
The site is also now a temporary home to belted Galloway cattle which will graze on the meadows as part of the site’s management.