I am, not to be too delicate about it, dicking about with a woefully imperfect image on my camera and not for the first time wishing I could have the moment again. The bird is there, but in flight, traveling too fast, and too far away. I know little of the standard rescue techniques, the dark arts of lifting jewels from the data. I turn a dial here or switch something on there, but I’m lost most of the time. The information is probably there. I just point and shoot, and hope.

Under the bridge, reflected light dapples the concrete and the graffiti. It is high Summer, but here, almost chill away from the sun, and despite the rush of the road, it’s peaceful. A week ago, the town crews had their bumps meeting and the rowers and their marshals shouted and echoed as they passed under the bypass toward Cambridge.

Nothing now, no boats, no runners. Just the sweeping whoosh of cars heading East and West. I’m trying to get the painted supports and their abstracted mirror images, but I’m clueless over such things. Further along the footpath, much further, as the overhanging willows start to thin and it’s all fields and lodes and irrigation channels I see the Marsh Harrier quartering her patch. A big female, blonde-headed, eyes down, scanning every inch for opportunity.

I’m lucky to be able to see them regularly. Just a few miles from my house, within sight of the cathedral, I’ve pulled the car over and watched them – as they always seem to be – running the gauntlet along the drains and dykes. Hunting, relentless.

It’s a terrible capture, but at least I have it. Elsewhere, if I was trying to grab a picture of a Hen Harrier, for instance, I’d be flat out of luck. The Marsh Harrier, through persecution, habitat destruction and the use of pesticides was almost wiped out in this country by 1970. But protection and smart conservation rescued it. Up North it’s a different story. The same energies that threatened its fenland cousin are fiercer and more tenacious. The same energies have grouse to protect. The upland Harriers are not welcome.

Last year, for the first time, Hen Harriers failed to raise any chicks in England. The habitat is there, it is their bad fortune that they just share it with grouse, and grouse have guardians. In my old Ladybird book of Birds of Prey (1970, neatly enough), the Marsh Harrier is considered almost ridiculously exotic. I remember looking at the pages as a kid and thinking I’d never ever get to see one. The Hen Harrier by contrast reads as a much likelier sighting. Leafing through the coarse pages now I remember just how much I loved John Leigh-Pemberton’s illustration; I copied it from the book dozens of times.

So I’m happy with my picture. I’m happier still with the opportunity to drive out to Shippea Hill or Lakenheath Fen or here, along the Lodes, if I want to search them out again. I’m grateful for that, and maybe one day I’ll get a better picture, if I’m lucky.


On 10th August it is Hen Harrier Day. Please join the thousands who are trying to highlight the persecution of these wonderful birds. I want, one day, to be lucky enough to spot one of these myself, too: we should all hope to be able to do that. Click the image below to find out more.