Hawk and Owl Trust volunteers’ vigil helps Norfolk’s marsh harriers rear their young

Conservationists ring and tag marsh harriers at Guist, near Fakenham. Picture: Andy Thompson

Conservationists ring and tag marsh harriers at Guist, near Fakenham. Picture: Andy Thompson - Credit: Archant

All beak, claws and feathers these fluffy chicks will soon grow into magnificent birds of prey.

Six young marsh harriers have successfully fledged in reedbeds at Guist, near Fakenham.

The youngsters, now learning to soar and hunt along the Wensum Valley, will bring a vital boost to the numbers of one of our largest birds of prey.

Conservationists have carefully captured and ringed the harriers, so that they can be identified on their future travels. First they have to find them.

Andy Thompson, a volunteer with the Hawk and Owl Trust, said by watching the female birds' comings and goings, they could pinpoint the two nesting sites in the large bed of Norfolk reed.

'Then it's a case of walking the reedbed with a huge degree of stealth and caution looking for it,' he said. 'You have to be careful not to create a trail which a fox could follow and raid the nest.'

Young birds - usually aged from three weeks upwards - are placed in a drawstring cloth bag, which keeps them docile.

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'If they start flapping around they're at risk of damage and that obviously mustn't happen,' said Mr Thompson.

Ringing and tagging - carried out by Phil Littler and John Middleton - usually takes just minutes, after which the birds are quickly measured before being returned to their nests.

From then on, their wing tags bearing a unique number will be visible through binoculars, enabling the birds to be identified.

While some remain close to their birthplace, others hatched in north Norfolk have flown as far afield as Portugal. Some, sadly, are denied the chance to ever fly at all.

Last year, a nest containing a clutch of five eggs was taken by a thief or thieves from the reedbed at Guist. The culprit has not yet been caught.

'It was devastating,' said Mr Thompson. 'I'm not sure if they're stolen to order or there's some collector stealing them but there was a clutch of five eggs there.

'They're probably sitting in a dark drawer now with a label on them.

'I just don't get it. That's five birds which could be flying around today adding to the marsh harrier population.'

Mr Thompson, 56, who works as a repairman for a housing association, said he and other volunteers had been keeping a close eye on the reedbed throughout the nesting season, noting vehicle registration numbers and watching for any suspicious activity near the birds.

'I get a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment from watching wildlife and photographing it,' he said.

'Volunteering for the Hawk and Owl Trust is my way of saying thank you.'

With just 380 breeding pairs of marsh harriers in the UK, every nest is literally vital to the survival of the species.