Pallid Harrier – Elmley, Kent

We had been invited to stay with the Kirkbys for the weekend of the 10th and 11th August as it was Alex’s 3rd birthday party. Sara and I had decided to take both cars so that I could go straight to Fairoak from work on Friday night. Sara was due to have Hannah and Alex Shenton but Alex had football training and Hannah had a bug so it meant that Sara could head straight to Fairoak whenever she wanted, she arrived there at about 3pm. I left the office at about 5:15pm, the journey to Fairoak was horrendous with flooding on the Millbrook Road and a crash on the M27. I arrived at Richard and Julie’s house at 6:25pm!

Several days earlier, on Tuesday 6th August 2002, several visiting birders had reported a very pale ‘grey’ Harrier species hunting over the grazing marshes between Kingshill Farm and the raised bank separating the hides from the farmland at Elmley Marshes RSPB reserve on the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent. The observers could not decide whether the bird was a male Hen Harrier or a male Montagu’s Harrier. It was seen again the next day and then by the reserve wardens on the Thursday and Friday. From the distant views obtained the bird was considered by some to be a male Pallid Harrier.

News of the birds presence slowly trickled around the local grapevines and on Saturday 10th August, some 20 or more observers enjoyed reasonable but fairly distant views of the bird as it sat on a post north of the entrance track to the reserve. Several were happy that it was a Pallid Harrier and at about 2:30pm this news was relayed nationally by Birdline South East and at 3:10pm by Rare Bird Alert.

Alex’s party began at about 3pm and shortly afterwards I had the ‘probable’ Pallid Harrier Mega Alert. There had been a number of ‘false start’ Pallid Harriers over the last couple of months with none coming to anything and I expected the same with this bird. Until it became a definite Pallid Harrier I wouldn’t be making any plans about how I could get there. Whatever happened I thought it would be rude to go on Sunday morning!

The probable Pallid Harrier was not seen between 2pm and 7pm but a crowd of more than 50 birders then relocated the Harrier and had got enough views to confirm the identification. At shortly before 8pm my pager confirmed it was a definite sub-adult male Pallid Harrier, my stomach lurched. I couldn’t go the next morning but began to consider the possibility of leaving Richard & Julie’s house mid afternoon on Sunday and heading to Kent. Sara had already intimated that she wanted to get home reasonably early and with us both having our cards in Fairoak I would be free to go. The Harrier was still at Elmley through to dusk.

There has never been a ‘twitchable’ Pallid Harrier on the British Mainland and Sunday 11th August saw the biggest twitch in Britain for several years with some 300 or more birders in place along the entrance track by 8am. The Pallid Harrier was relocated quartering along the side of the track which runs south east towards Elmley RSPB reserve. I mentioned to Sara that I was considering leaving at 2:30pm and would be heading to the Isle of Sheppey.

I texted Dad at 9am and he was interested even though I wouldn’t be leaving until later. I rang Peter at 11am, half expecting him to have gone already, but was surprised to hear that unless Richard Baatsen got in touch about sharing a lift then he wouldn’t be going. This seemed unlikely as Richard didn’t need Pallid Harrier having already twitched Shetland the previous September. I said I was going and he seemed interested especially since he had dipped the Orkney bird of 1993. He wasn’t so keen, however, when he realised that we weren’t going until 2:30pm. In the end we left it so that Peter would think about it and get back in touch.

A little later on he texted me to say that he was coming, I rang him back and we agreed that I would pick him up at Fleet services at 3pm. I arranged for Dad to drive to the Kirkby’s house and leave his car on the drive ready for a 2:30pm get away. Just before lunch, however, Peter texted back to say that he had changed his mind and wouldn’t be coming. His car needed an MOT and he had lots of work to catch up with. He also felt that an evening twitch was a little dodgy particularly given his recent run of dips.

Dad arrived at 2:25pm and by 2:35pm we were on our way. The Pallid Harrier had been reported periodically throughout the morning. There was a risk of poor weather and with the relatively little time we had available I was very anxious. We had expected to get to Fleet services within 25 minutes but to my horror at just beyond Winchester we joined the end of 4 lanes of solid traffic!

We moved very slowly and the frustration was unbearable. At times like this the whole world seems against you. None of the hundreds of faces I could see in the surrounding cars seemed to be in as much of a hurry as me. We needed as much free time as possible at Elmley particularly if the Harrier became elusive. If this was heavy traffic caused by motorists heading back to London then I felt that we may as well give up now. My mind played through the image of the languid harrier drifting over the dykes of Sheppey, an image I had been playing since last night, an image which was becoming almost too painful to contemplate.

I’m not sure what Dad was thinking but he seemed calm. His optimism is something I’ve encountered many times before and maybe a reaction to my dark despair although it wasn’t helping on the M3 ‘car park’ that afternoon.

We tuned into BBC Radio Solent to hear that a Caravan had overturned near junction 7 and this was causing the problems, this was good news and that meant that once passed the crash we might be OK. 40 minutes later we were through the problem and back to 90 mph. Beyond every bend and over every incline in the M3 I half expected to see the red brake lights piling up before us. We were lucky, however, and the rest of the journey was remarkably problem free and as if to apologise for the long delay the weather also started to brighten up in the east. We made it from Fleet services at 3:40pm to the Isle of Sheppey by 5pm. The Pallid Harrier had been reported at 2:55pm and 3:25pm but not since.

Shortly after crossing onto Sheppey via the Kingsferry Bridge we turned right and then forked left down the track towards the RSPB reserve at Elmley. We passed a number of birders cars coming back the other way, they all seemed to be smiling! I found it very difficult to drive at a speed suitable for the pot-holed gravel road. The excitement was building, within a few minutes we would have clearer idea of whether we were going to be successful. After a mile or so I could make out large numbers of birders and their cars parked up alongside the track. The Isle of Sheppey had been unkind to me in the past with a 1 out of 4 record (dipping White-tailed Eagle, Black-headed Bunting and Greater Yellowlegs (I’ve seen all of them subsequently), while seeing Rough-legged Buzzard). Would I be lucky this evening?

I parked up in a convenient gap on the roadside and we jumped out of the car and joined the long line of 200 or so birders strung out along the track. They were vaguely looking in the same direction and reported that the Harrier had been seen 2 minutes ago but had disappeared behind a large bank of long grasses and thistles. The surrounding area was rough grazing, marshes and arable land intersected by dykes and creeks. There was plenty of suitable habitat and with it being such a large area we weren’t surprised to hear that the Harrier could go missing for up to an hour at a time. The pager immediately reported this latest sighting, the first news for 1.5 hours. We cursed out luck, 2 minutes too late, although deep down I felt that we had a very good chance of seeing the Pallid Harrier but you can never be certain.

I moved further along the line towards another group of birders. Because the bird had been showing for most of the day and birders were beyond the initial desire to constantly call out directions you could have the situation where one group were watching the Pallid Harrier while another group stood around looking for it.

This was the case now as the group I had just joined were clearly watching it perched on a distant post. They gave me directions, above a metal gate and just above the shoulders of a cow in the foreground, and there it was. I beckoned over to Dad and he joined me. It was 5:05pm.

The Harrier was perhaps 200 yards away and while perched the main features were the very pale body, almost white, extending up to a pale throat and slightly darker grey head although nothing like the slate grey head of male Hen Harrier. He was looking straight towards us and his pale face made the dark ‘v’ formed by the eyes and bill stand out clearly. The legs were a brilliant yellow colour. About 25 minutes later the harrier flew a short distance to our left but kept very low to the ground making it difficult to see clearly. We managed to relocate it on another post and it wasn’t long before it took off again but this time it gave us good and prolonged flight views.

We were able to see the strikingly pale grey wings and the white body. The underwings were also pale and without the darker trailing edge of Hen Harrier and the upperwings lacked the dark secondary bar of Montagu’s Harrier. The flight views also gave us the chance to see the primary pattern clearly. The black patch was restricted to perhaps only primaries 5-8 making a narrow black edge as opposed to the broad dipped in ink appearance of Hen Harrier and Montagu’s Harrier. The Pallid Harrier drifted off lazily hunting for voles and mice over the open rough grassland before gradually fading into the haze and disappearing altogether behind a raised grassy bank.

Pallid Harrier’s are birds of temperate grassland and steppe breeding from the Black Sea and the Ukraine eastwards through Kazakhstan to Mongolia. They winter in Africa in a band south of the Sahara, down to South Africa and throughout the Indian subcontinent. This sub-adult male would be the 12th record for Britain but the 1st twitchable mainland record and a tick for Ron Johns!!

The first view of the Pallid Hairier on the fence post, meant that a new bird was definitely on our list but the greatest satisfaction followed the extended flight views. As the Pallid Harrier had drifted across in front of us I had felt a growing euphoria and relief. The contrast from two hours previously was stark. The building anguish followed by incredible relief is the twitcher’s fix. It is an addiction but the highs, if anything, get better. As usual, the trip back was made in very high spirits. I arrived back in Poole, via Fair Oak at 9pm.

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