The 'wonderful mystery' of Lancashire bird's thousand-mile trip to the sun

A Lancashire tourist has defied the Covid-19 lockdown to take a long-distance trip – but don’t worry, this frequent flier hasn’t broken any laws.

By Phil Cunnington
Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 3:45 pm

A two-year-old hen harrier named Apollo has become the first Lancashire bird to migrate more than 1,000 miles to Spain, where he has spent the past two winters.

The young male was fitted with a satellite-tracking device before he fledged from his nest on the United Utilities Bowland estate in 2019. The RSPB works with United Utilities, their farming and shooting tenants, and the AONB, to protect close to a third of England’s hen harrier breeding population. The satellite tag has allowed scientists at the RSPB to follow his incredible journey, taking him all the way to Extremadura, where he spent his first winter in 2019/20.

Apollo then flew back to Bowland the following spring, returning to breed with a young female just a few miles from where he himself had hatched.

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Apollo the hen harrier, who has flown from his nesting site in Bowland, Lancashire to his winter home in Extrremadura, Spain, twice in two years. His brother Dynamo, meanwhile, has ventured less than 50 miles in the same period

Incredibly, Apollo then repeated his journey to Spain in autumn 2020, following a dead-straight line to the exact spot in Extremadura – a landscape of steppes, forest, and farming between Lisbon and Madrid, and one of the most biodiverse places in Europe.

Meanwhile, Apollo’s brother Dynamo, who was tagged at the same time, hasn’t ventured more than 50 miles from Bowland.

Hen harriers are rare, protected birds of prey that breed in upland areas of the UK. Males are grey with black wingtips and around the size of a gull. Their population declined by 24% between 2004-2016 in England, largely due to human persecution.

James Bray, Bowland Project Officer at the RSPB, said: “Initially we believed that most of our tagged hen harriers stayed in the British uplands all year-round. However, it’s become clear that around 10% of birds cross the English Channel for the winter, some bound for France and a few for Spain. None of the tagged RSPB birds that traveled to Spain had made it back to the UK, until now.

“Clearly Apollo’s Spanish wintering ground has everything he needs, but how these birds find their way back to the exact same spot, almost 1000 miles away, with such precision, remains a wonderful mystery.”

Sadly none of Apollo’s chicks are known to have survived. However, the RSPB is hopeful that Apollo will return to Bowland in the coming months and nest once more, and send a new intrepid generation out into the world.

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