Northern Harrier on the Lizard Peninsular

You may have heard that a rare species of raptor has graced Cornwall since 28th September, a juvenile Northern Harrier! This sublime looking bird of prey has delighted many birders from across the country and has been a welcome addition to the county lists of most Cornish birders too. Here we discuss where it came from and what makes it identifiable from the more expected Hen Harrier.

Local birder Edward O’Connor reported an interesting looking harrier species from his local patch at Higher Bochyn; a Natural England Reserve located on Goonhilly Downs. A team effort ensued to confirm suspicions that it was indeed a juvenile Northern Harrier; a 2nd for Cornwall.

So what makes this bird a Northern Harrier, rather than our resident Hen Harrier? At a distance you may notice that it has a darker looking head and the extsensive orangey hue to the underparts is certainly very eye-catching, when compared to a typical juvenile Hen Harrier. The devil is in the detail with this particular species though and to confirm the identification you need close and clear views of some subtle features that are best expalined via these stunning photographs and text from Mashuq Ahmad; a member of our County Rarities Committee.


Primary 9 and Primary 8 with 6 bars (not including the dark tip. On P9, innermost bar faint and hard to see. Typically 4-5 on Hen (rarely 6) Also 4 bars on P10, (typically 3 on Hen).
Dark breast band and, diffuse streaking on the rufous-toned underparts, restricted to upper breast and upper flanks.
Darker, chocolate brown upperparts in general compared with Hen Harrier with obvious rufous, upper wing covert fringes (lower lesser coverts).
Dark facial crescent, solidly dark chocolate crown and dark chocolate neck boa. In combination, creating striking hood effect unlike Hen Harrier .

Only one previous record of Northern Harrier has been confirmed in Cornwall before, an adult male photographed at Men -an- Tol on 23rd November 2013. Why are they so rare? Amazingly they breed no closer to us than Canada and northern North America and only certain weather conditions can facilitate such an extreme occurence of vagrancy. As the Northern Harrier was migrating south along the East Coast of North America on its way to wintering grounds further south it will have got caught up in Hurricane Lee.  As the remainder of this powerful storm sped quickly across the Atlantic , an uprecedented arrival of American vagrants where found across Britain. The fast moving weather system, accompanied by a warm front was a key factor as birds managed to survive this incredible journey, a ‘perfect storm’ for rarities!

At time of writing (6th October 2023) the Northern Harrier is still being seen on the Lizard, currently around Kynance Cove. If you haven’t been down to see it then why not go and enjoy this stunning raptor in an idyllic setting.