We get three types here in Poitou Charentes, Marsh, Hen and Montagu’s Harriers. They are birds of prey which fly low over the ground searching for small animals to eat.
Marsh harriers are brown and you generally see them near the coast. The stretch from La Rochelle down to Ile de Re is a good area to spot them and they are resident so you can see them at any time of the year. The male, female and juveniles are all brown. They are good to see but not that rare or exciting.
The ones I see most often are the Hen and Montagu’s Harriers. Now this is a real treat as in England they are both incredibly rare. I read a report from the BBC that this year the one pair of hen harriers that nested in GB failed to raise any young. (BBC Web site) On the RSPB website it says there are just 13 to 17 pairs of Montagu’s Harriers nesting in England. That is what I mean by rare.
Luckily I see these birds nearly every time I come to France and sometimes at quite close range. I have spent many hours trying to photograph them with only limited success. If you live in the southern part of Vienne you stand a good chance of seeing these magnificent birds. They are quite different from buzzards which are quite common. The males are most distinctive, as they are very light grey in colour, almost white, and they have black wing tips. The females and young ones are brown but they do have a white rump which helps separate them from buzzards. The other characteristic, if you get a good look, is their shape. Buzzards are chunky whereas harriers are thin, they have longer, narrow wings and a longer tail. They are a far more elegant bird. Unlike buzzards harriers do not usually sit on top of telegraph poles. Normally you see them slowly flying up and down low over a field. The technical term for this is ‘quartering’.
Distinguishing a hen harrier from a Montagu’s harrier is a bit more difficult. In the case of the males, the underside of the hen harrier is all light grey except the black wing tips. It also has a slightly more grey coloured head, as you can see in the photo below.
The Montagu’s on the other hand has two dark bars diagonally along the length of the wing along with the dark wing tips. Its not so easy to see especially as sometimes they are angled so you cant see the underside, basically if the underside is not clean pure grey/white then it is not a Hen Harrier. The photo below shows a Montagu’s Harrier, note that the colour of the head blends into the body and you can see the diagonal lines on the underside of the wing.
The females of both birds are almost identical so don’t bother. Finally the Hen harrier is in Poitou-Charentes all year round but the Montagu’s is only around from March to October.
So keep your eyes open for these magnificent birds and if you see one try to focus in on the underside of its wings although if you are driving do try to pull over before you reach for your binoculars!
To see many more photos of birds from Poitou-Charentes click http://poitoucharentesinphotos.wordpress.com/garden-wildlife/garden-birds/