As I raised my binoculars to scan the reed bed for bearded tits, a stocky, chocolate-brown bird of prey lazily flapped across my field of vision. “Marsh harrier!” I exclaimed as it drifted a few metres above the fronded stems, its wings held in a characteristic shallow V. The harrier was silhouetted against the setting sun but, as it pirouetted around, its pale-coloured crown flared gold in the late afternoon light.
Marsh harriers were once widespread in Britain but, by the early 1970s, persecution and habitat loss saw the population dwindle to a single breeding pair. Thanks to a reduction in pesticide use and efforts to improve and expand their preferred wetland habitat, this number has risen to about 400 pairs.
Although traditionally summer migrants, wintering as far south as sub-Saharan Africa, a growing number – usually females – remain all year round. Though their stronghold is in East Anglia, they breed in low numbers in other regions where large reed beds are found. But these majestic raptors remain a rare sight in Hampshire. A pair raised two chicks at Titchfield Haven in 2017 – only the second time marsh harriers have bred in the county since 1957.
As the harrier methodically quartered its hunting ground in search of prey, it flushed out a flock of lapwing, their wings flickering as they wheeled up over the lagoon. At the sound of their kazoo-like alarm calls, thousands of waders and wildfowl exploded into flight, blossoming across the sky like fireworks. Chevrons of brent geese, wigeon and shelduck headed out to sea; while pulsating nebulas of black-tailed godwits, curlew, dunlin and oystercatchers performed evasive aerial manoeuvres.
Banking to avoid a mob of black-headed gulls, the harrier flew into the maelstrom and made a pass at a lagging teal, but missed. As it circled back, sending up a second wave of water birds, the soaring form of a falcon drew my attention. A kestrel was winnowing above the harrier, seemingly using the larger bird as cover.
The harrier carved a path through a murmuration of starlings. As one bird jinked out of its grasp, the kestrel pulled smoothly out of its slipstream and sailed past, plunging down to strike the unsuspecting starling’s back with outstretched talons.