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Hen Harrier

A winter visitor in small numbers to the Poole Harbour area of Dorset.

Photograph by: 
Ian Ballam

The hen harrier is a specialist of moorland habitats in northern Britain and so the heathland in the Poole basin makes a good wintering alternative location and a small number of these magnificent birds can be seen here outside of the breeding season. Sadly they are a much persecuted species in their breeding areas where they are perceived to be a threat to commercial grouse shooting and so numbers in Britain are now very low and consequently the numbers in Dorset in winter are inevitably low as well.

The male and female are both 'hen' harriers; a hen harrier is not a female harrier and the male a cock harrier! The two sexes are different in plumage with the male being light grey and the female mainly brown with a white band or ring across the tail. This white band has led to the female being known as a 'ring tail'. 

Hen harriers start to be reported in Dorset during late August from week 33 onwards but the number of reports starts to pick up from week 40 in October. This might imply that earlier sightings are birds intent on moving further south and are just passing through whereas the October birds are possibly staying long term. Reports are fairly consistent right through the winter until week 7 in late February and then they start to tail off. By week 16 at the end of April they are all but gone and are back in their nesting territories.

The distribution map shows that the various sites around Poole Harbour are a popular place with hen harriers being seen in the harbour over reed beds and also on the adjacent heathland. There are reports from along the Dorset coast as well, especially along the Fleet, and these are possibly more likely to me migrant birds leaving or arriving whereas the Poole Harbour birds are more likely to be long staying.

Finding hen harriers in Dorset is a little unpredictable but if there are wintering birds in the area then the hide at MIddlebere Farm is as good a place to lie in wait as any.



Hen Harrier: The ring in the tail

Common Name Hen Harrier
Scientific Name Circus cyaneus
Species Group Birds Raptors
Status Restricted
Interest Level
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
Look for

An owl-like face on a standard bird of prey body!

Identification Notes
  • Now hunted to near extinction in England some pairs still successfully breed in Scotland
  • Only the male is grey, the female is brown with a white bar on the tail (they are known as ring-tails)
  • They have an elaborate display flight in spring which gives them the name of sky dancers 
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Raptors