One of the real draws for me, and for any birder visiting the straits of Messina in March/April, is undoubtedly the pallid harrier. This bird is internationally 'near-threatened' and in Europe the population is only in the range of 300-1100 pairs. The Messina Strait being one of the most important European flyways for this migratory harrier. This species is, as well as being difficult to see in western Europe, absolutely stunning, so when I heard that upwards of 70 were recorded in the Straits each spring I started booking flights! In total I saw around 80 of these fantastic birds, predominantly second-year birds.
As with other Circus harrier species the pallid harrier is sexually-dimorphic, i.e the males and females vary considerably. The females and immature birds are an brownish with a white upper-tail, while the males are a most incredible ghostly silver with a 'shard' of jet black on each hand. This often made the males easily identifiable from a considerable distance. The size varies considerably between males and females, females being much larger than the diminutive males, while still more or less retaining the same characteristic light and bouncing flight-style. The relatively long and slender wings (compared to a hen harrier) give this bird a very elegant impression, although not as elegant as the even-longer winged Montagu's Harrier.
I saw my first Pallid Harrier about a week after I arrived, on the 21st of March. To my delight it was an adult male! The next few Pallids we saw were adult males too, one or two birds coming close-enough, but the majority were generally distant to my disappointment. One of the most important features of harrier migration is the differing phenology of male and female harrier movements. Basically males migrate first, likely with the aim of securing a breeding territory. Later the females and immature birds pass through. Due to some calm weather in late March just as male pallid passage was peaking we ended up seeing fewer than we would have hoped, due to the birds being able to shoot straight across the Tyrrhenian sea, in effect bypassing us in Calabria.
All was not lost however, as during the remainder of April the conditions for the migration of the 'ringtail' harriers (female and immature) were in our favour. We ended up seeing dozens of second calendar-year birds (birds born last spring) as well as a few females. On one cold and blustery mid-April day the stars aligned, and a strong passage of second-cal pallid harriers, due to lack of thermals, was forced to pass at low altitude right over our heads! This allowed for some fantastic photo opportunities. I hope I managed to do these fantastic raptors justice with the below shots!
|A slightly distant male, likely a 3rd calendar year bird, still with brown tinges to the plumage and underdeveloped black in the primaries|
|Probably my best Pallid shot, this bird came ridiculously close|
|One of a few second calendar year birds that passed extremely close to the watchpoint|
|I chose to include this shot as it nicely captures the distinctive wing shape, very wide base tapering smoothly to a point, quite unlike the long and parallel edged wings of the similar Montagu's Harrier|
|Pallid with a Honey Buzzard|