Tuesday 21 November 2023

Identification of female and juvenile Pallid and Montagu's Harriers

A recent trip to Batumi in Georgia (which is written up below) provided a great opportunity to observe migrating harriers and to experience the difficulties of identifying them. 

At some locations it is possible to have multiple sightings of the same bird, particular if you are visiting a breeding territory but on migration each bird typically passes you just once, and in the case of harriers this is usually quickly or very quickly! Consequently you have a short period of time in which to both identify and age each bird. Clearly this is assisted by taking photos and my first recommendation is to get photos of any harrier where its identity is uncertain.

We spent 11 days at Sakhalvasho and counted 242 harriers of which 23 were recorded as Pallid, 60 as Montagu's and 159 as Monpal (not specifically identified, either Pallid or Montagu's). Interestingly during those same 11 days the Batumi Raptor Count recorded 997 harriers with 63 Pallid, 362 Montagu's and 572 Monpal. I imagine we missed a large number of distant birds as, understandably, we were more interested in watching the closer birds and attempting to get photos.

I've gone through all my photos since returning home and consequently have changed the identity and/or age of some of the birds seen now that I have been able to look at them closely and review them against the literature and the large number of published photos, particularly on eBird.

I will not be addressing the separation of Pallid and Montagu's from Hen (or Northern) Harriers which is adequately covered elsewhere and given a decent view should not normally cause confusion although birds in moult can be a pitfall for the unwary.

Nor will I deal with adult males as again they are unlikely to be confused in even a half decent view.

My comments largely relate to birds in autumn although most of the identification criteria should apply at other times of the year.

Location and date are useful factors when dealing with a possible Pallid or Montagu's Harrier, in the UK a Monpal seen between October and April is very likely to be a Pallid Harrier. This is probably also the case for most of Northern Europe.

Below I have created montages of some of the birds seen and will go through the identification and ageing criteria I have used.

All the photos were taken at Batumi in October, the light here is very variable and it was often very overcast quite unlike the conditions usually experienced in Southern Europe or the Middle East.

As a general comment I did not notice any structural  or behavioural differences between the birds seen and do not think that size, shape or flight action are much help in identifying lone birds.

Pallid Harrier generally has a shorter outer primary (p10) than Montagu's but the difference does not appear to be sufficient to help in separating the two species.

Banding on the underside of the tail may provide additional support for the identification of both adults and juveniles. In female/juvenile Pallid the distal dark tail band is broad with a second band visible at the tip of the undertail coverts (PA1, PA3 and PJ4). In Montagu's the banding is slightly narrower with three bands visible between the undertail coverts and the tail tip (MA3, MJ3) but this feature should be used with caution.

Ageing and Sexing

The iris colour of juveniles is a safe means of separating males from females it is brown in females and yellow during a males first autumn.

Females in their second calendar year may still show a dark eye but some are already yellow eyed. The adult female Pallid PA1 is just showing a paler iris whilst the second calendar year Montagu's MA4 already has a bright yellow iris.

In the autumn of their second calendar year birds can be aged by the mix of adult and juvenile feathers.

Adult and Second Calendar Year Females

Recommended criteria, as marked on PA1 below;

Figure 1 Adult female and 2nd calendar year female Pallid v Montagu's Harrier

a) Pattern and colouration of the secondaries

On adult female Montagu's there are at least two visible dark bars on the underside of the secondaries which are evenly spaced, and the pale area separating them continues to the birds body. In Pallid the distal dark bar often thickens towards the body causing the pale bar to narrow, often disappearing before it can meet the body.

In second calender year birds there may be a mix of new barred secondaries with older dark juvenile secondaries.

From above the secondary bars can be seen on Montagu's but not on Pallid and female Pallid shows some dark marks on the rump, as does the adult male, which is not shown by Montagu's.

Pallid Harrier ad female note lack of obvious barring on the secondaries same as PA1

b) Primaries

On Montagu's the inner five primaries are dark tipped whereas these, particularly the inner 3 or 4, are pale like the rest of the feathers.

In second calendar year females the inner 7 or 8 primaries have usually been replaced by autumn leaving 2 or 3 outer primaries which are retained, worn, juvenile feathers.

c) Underwing coverts and axillaries

The axillaries on Montagu's are barred pale and dark brown or reddish brown and in adult females this pattern is repeated across the greater underwing coverts. An example of the longest axillary is inset by the carpal joint on figures MA1 and PA1.

The overall effect is often to create a strongly barred pattern in female Montagu's, MA4 is a good example. MA5 is a darker second calendar year bird and the darker 'armpit' is more akin to Pallid but note the axillary pattern is still Montagu's.

In Pallid these feathers are dotted rather than barred and the colouring tends to be more subdued although on reddish birds such as PA3 it can create a strong pattern which could be mistaken for that of Montagu's but a close look shows that these are discrete spots rather than bars. 

Where the bars are not aligned it creates more of a chequer board effect as in Figure MA1.

d) Head pattern

The pale collar, which is a feature of juvenile Pallid harriers is retained in to adulthood by the female Pallid Harrier although it is not as obvious as in the juvenile but usually forms a crescent of even width behind the dark sickle shaped cheek surround.

There tends to be less contrast in female Montagu's head pattern the dark cheek surround is darkest behind the eye but tends to merge in to the dark neck colouration to the rear and below.

The dark head of MA5 is more Pallid like but there is less white in the sub-ocular area and there is no pale collar.

There is a lot of variation in the plumage of female Montagu's Harrier, in particular, and identification should be confirmed on a combination of features.


Visiting Batumi I knew that separating adult female Monpals would be tricky but I found that juveniles were often just as problematic. In part due to the distance from the bird and the poor light, but the variation in juvenile plumage of both Montagu's and Pallid Harriers was greater than expected and there is considerable overlap in many of the features used to separate them.
Figure 2 Juvenile Pallid and Montagu's Harriers
The ground colour of both species varies but Montagu's shows the greatest variation, ranging from deep brick red, as in MJ3, which I've never seen in Pallid, to a less frequent pale yellow-beige which is more akin to the commonest colour of Pallid.
As with the adult female I'll go through the key identification features for both species which are lettered on Figure 2 against PJ1.

a) Secondaries
Juvenile Pallid Harrier commonly shows all dark secondaries as in PJ2 and PJ5 but they can be paler when dark barring may be visible as in PJ3 and some male Pallid Harriers show paler, dark barred secondaries similar to Montagu's MJ1.

b) Primaries
Both species show dark tipped primaries but the dark area is much more extensive in Montagu's, often covering more than half the outer primaries, whilst it is generally just the tip in Pallid.

Male Montagu's Harriers, and sometimes females can show larger unmarked outer primaries (p10 to p8)  below the dark tip creating a large pale area in the outer wing which is visible from a considerable distance as in MJ1 and MJ3. I have not seen this feature in Pallid so if present is strongly indicative of Montagu's. 
On the other hand the base of juvenile Pallid Harriers primaries may show no barring as in PJ3 which creates a so called pale 'boomerang' at the base of the primaries which I haven't seen in Montagu's.

The inner primaries of Pallid may look translucent, lacking dark tips as in adult female Pallid and it may be that this is more commonly found in female Pallid as in PJ1and PJ4. 
Some Pallids do have darker tipped inner primaries and some Montagu's, which typically have dark tipped primaries as in MJ4 and MJ1, have pale tipped inner secondaries as MJ2 so this is not a feature to rely on.

c) Underwing coverts and axillaries
The underlying colour of the underwing coverts and axillaries generally matches the body colour but in some Pallid the greater underwing coverts are dark as in PJ4 and PJ5 forming a distinct line in the centre of the underwing, I haven't seen this in Montagu's although they might show dark shaft streaks as in MJ2.

Juvenile Montagu's may have some adult like axillaries and/or greater underwing coverts as in MJ1, MJ4 and MJ5. Although Pallids may show indistinct spotting on the axillaries they never show the strong pattern as seen on the examples above. So birds showing one or more strongly barred, or spotted, feathers is likely to be Montagu's.

d) Head pattern

The majority of juvenile Pallid Harriers exhibit a pale, even width, collar bordered by a dark sickle shaped cheek crescent towards the eye and a dark 'boa' of variable width towards the body as can be seen in all the juvenile Pallids on Figure 2.

Juvenile Montagu's may also show a collar but it is seldom as distinct as in Pallid compare MJ1, MJ2 and MJ5.


Given a decent view most female and juvenile Pallid and Montagu's Harriers should be identifiable.

Get a photo if possible and note the markings of the primaries, secondaries, underwing coverts and the head.

I've made no attempt to consider hybridisation which is known to have occurred between Hen and Pallid Harriers and Montagu's and Pallid Harriers.

I have produced a single sheet key to harrier identification which I've reproduced here;

Simplified key to harrier identification


Forsman D, (2016)

Flight Identification of Raptors of Europe, North Africa and The Middle East

Forsman D, Dutch Birding 17:41-54, April 1995

Field identification of female and juvenile Montagu's and Pallid Harriers

Dobler G, (2022)

Field identification of the Hen Harrier, Montagu's Harrier and Pallid Harrier

Monday 13 November 2023

Batumi and the Caucasus 5th to 24th September 2023

 The importance of the Eastern Black Sea Flyway for migrating birds of prey was first documented during the 1970's but it was not until 2004 that the idea of establishing an annual autumn count was discussed but it was 2008 before this became a reality and the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) was established.

Regular counting at the neighbouring positions of Sakhalvasho and Shuamta, just north of Batumi has established that more than a million raptors pass through this area each autumn.

An autumn visit to Batumi to watch this migration spectacle is close to the top of many birders bucket list. Having talked about making a trip to Batumi for several years a group of us finally made the trip this autumn and we weren't disappointed!


Travel out: Turkish Airlines flight from Manchester, left at 16.25 on 4th September, arrived at Istanbul at 23.25. A long wait in Istanbul airport until our Turkish Airlines flight to Batumi left at 06.45 arriving at 09.25 on 5th September. 

Travel back: Turkish Airlines flight from Batumi at 10.25, arriving at Istanbul at 11.30. Then a 13.45 flight to Manchester, arriving at 16.05. 

All times are local time and the flights kept fairly closely to their scheduled times. 

eBird log and Trektellen figures 

I kept a daily eBird log, and did two where we visited two locations in a day: 

eBird trip report

At Batumi our raptor watching was all done from the counting station at Sakhalvasho and the official figures for there can be found on Trektellen: https://www.trektellen.org/count/view/1047/20220905 

Crested Honey Buzzard - male and one of the most sought after raptors at Batumi


For the raptor migration part of the trip we stayed a short distance from Batumi, at Sakhalvasho in a guest house run by Ruslan and Mari Dilaverov. The rooms and the food were excellent and they were very helpful. The guest house is only a 500 metre walk from the counting station, though some of that is steeply uphill. Ruslan owns a minibus and took us to and from the airport and on three trips to the Chorokhi delta (just south of Batumi). 

Ruslan's house and the view north from the garden, it's a similar view from Sakhalvasho

For the mountain excursion we stayed in a Edelweiss guest house in Mestia. On each of the three mornings we hired two 4 x 4 minibuses which took us up into the mountains so that we were at about 3000 metres for sunrise.

Edelweiss Guest House


This is one of the two counting stations for the Batumi Raptor Count and enjoys a panoramic view to the coast (just over 2 km away) and up into the hills. On a clear day the snowy peaks of the Caucasus can be seen to the north. There is a surprisingly good observation building at Sakhalvasho, and it’s needed because on one day we counted 55 birders there (including 8-10 official counters). The other counting station at Shuamta is 4 kms to the east, but we never visited it, as travel there was slightly awkward and raptor counts are typically lower than at Sakhalvasho. 

The counting station at Sakhalvasho

Sakhalvasho 5th to the 12th September 

Ruslan and John met us at Batumi airport on the morning of the 5th. Ruslan drove us to our accommodation, we had lunch and were at the watchpoint for 13.30. We were lucky in that the official account on Trektellen says it was a calm morning, but then “suddenly all the Honey Buzzards booming overhead”. It was a fantastic introduction and the day ended with an official total of 41,055 Honey Buzzards. 

Honey Buzzards - males

The 6th started with good numbers of harriers, but then the honey Buzzards really poured through. The official total for Sakhalvasho was 77,700 Honey Buzzards and taken together the Sakhalvasho and Shuamta totals came to over 100,000 raptors. An incredible day and exactly the sort of spectacle we had been hoping for! 
Honey Buzzards and Black Kites in the mist with a Crested Honey Buzzard bottom right which I hadn't seen until looking at the photo at home - how many must be missed?
Honey Buzzard - female
Off course it's not just Honey Buzzards migrating, there are plenty of other birds of prey migrating we recorded Short-toed Eagle most days with 14 on 10 September.

Short-toed Eagle - probably 3cy
Short-toed Eagle - adult
Like the Short-toed, Lesser Spotted were recorded most days but in this first period of counting we had a maximum of 16 on 10 September. 
Lesser Spotted Eagle - adult
Booted Eagles passed in reasonable numbers with a maximum of 134 on 10 Sept during our first session and 240 on 19 September during our second session. There appeared to be a fairly even split of light and dark birds and plenty of youngsters so it provided a good opportunity to brush up on their identification.

Booted Eagles - pale (upper) and dark(lower) adults

We saw Levant and Eurasian Sparrowhawks everyday but generally both species migrated as singles or up to 4 or 5 birds in the case of the Levants. The number of Levants counted was generally in the 5-10 range each day but we recorded a maximum of 25 on the 10 September.

Levant Sparrowhawk - young adult male
Levant Sparrowhawk - juvenile
One family of birds I was hoping to see plenty of were the harriers, Batumi is probably the best places in the Western Palearctic to see them migrating in numbers. During our stay we logged 20 Pallid, 60 Montagu's and 159 which could have be either species were recorded as 'Monpals'.
Pallid Harrier juvenile male

Pallid Harrier adult male

Pallid Harrier adult female

Montagu's Harrier juv male
As well as the raptors there were several other species migrating in good numbers. The Eurasian Bee-eater was the most abundant with several hundred most days and a maximum of 1240 on 10 Sept. We didn't see any Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters at Sakalvasho which was a disappointment but we did have one at the Chorokhi Delta on 9 September.

European Bee-eater
It was great to see Turtle Doves migrating in numbers that are seldom now seen in Europe. On our best day we counted 446 mostly in flocks of 20-40 birds.
Migrating Turtle Doves
The 8th was spent at the watchpoint and although raptors were much quieter, a group of 23 European Rollers flew south,  Rollers were seen migrating on most days with 38 on 8th and 25 on 10 September. Also on the 8th a very distant flock of about 130 Black-winged Pratincoles flew south over the Black Sea. 
European Roller
Raptor numbers were lower on the 7th and most of the group opted to visit Batumi Botanical Garden which produced Kruper’s Nuthatch and various other passerines.
Long-tailed Tit of the grey backed race major

On the 9th we visited the Chorokhi delta and although it began promisingly with lots of Whinchats and various warblers, heavy rain set in and eventually we had to abandon the visit but not before we had seen Isabelline and Pied Wheatear, Thrush Nightingale several Tawny Pipit and our only Blue-cheeekd Bee-eater of the trip not to mention a minimum of 40 Whinchat and lots of Red-backed Shrikes.

Isabelline Wheatear
Pied Wheatear juvenile

Sheltering from the rain at the Chorokhi Delta

The rain continued for most of the day, but to our surprise the afternoon saw a reasonable passage of raptors. We sat on the upstairs veranda at our guest house and enjoyed the dramatic sight of birds moving despite the wind and rain.


The 10th was a good day for Booted Eagles and Black Kites, and we had our first Crested Honey Buzzard (photo at top of page). 

There was a moderate raptor passage on the 11th and early morning at the base of the viewpoint produced Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 16 Golden Orioles and singing Green Warbler.

Golden Oriole - male
On the 12th we again visited the Chorokhi delta, which produced a good range of species despite the large number of shooters present we counted a minimum of 55 Red-backed Shrikes!

Chorokhi Delta  with the river mouth and Black Sea in the distance

Tawny Pipit one of more than a dozen seen

Great Reed Warbler

Little Crake

Mestia and the Svaneti area 13th to 17th September 

Giorgi Rajebashvili of Ecotours Georgia arrived, we loaded up the minibus and left Sakhalvasho at 08.00. 

The weather was poor, so we didn’t stop to view the lake at Kolkheti. We did stop for a coffee at the McDonalds in Zugdidi; not surprisingly it turned out to be like a McDonalds anywhere. We later stopped for lunch at a restaurant near Nodashi which produced our first Common Crossbill of the trip.

Restaurant stop at Nodashi in coniferous woodland
We arrived at Mestia at 13.30, checked into our guesthouse and in light rain took a walk round Mestia. Birds seen included Black Redstart of the eastern form and Rock Bunting.

Black Redstart male of the orange bellied nominate race ochruros
Rock Bunting presumed adult female of the race par
The next morning involved an early breakfast as our minibuses were set to arrive at 06.00. We set out towards the mountains and were soon into low cloud. Fortunately as we neared the higher parts of the track we broke through the cloud and into a stunning vista of snowy peaks rising above the cloud.
Above the clouds on Mt Tetnuldi withthe twin peaks of Mount Ushba in sunlight

At 3000m on the slopes of Mt Tetnuldi (L to R Mike Barnett, Martin Quinlan, Paul Doherty, Roger Barnes, Vaughan, Me, John McLoughlin, Giorgi Rajebashvili)

Our first stop for Caucasian Snowcock was unsuccessful, but at our second Roger saw a group of dark rocks start walking and we had our first Snowcocks! In the end we counted thirteen, rather distant, but very enjoyable birds.

Caucasian Snowcocks
There were also at least 6 Alpine Accentors and about 50 Red-fronted Serins in the area. Our attempts to find Caucasian Black Grouse and Guldenstadt’s Redstart were not successful. 

Alpine Accentor of the race montana

Red-fronted Serin juvenile

On the return journey and once we were below the tree line we encountered Mountain Chiffchaffs.

Mountain Chiffchaff juvenile

The following day we followed a similar routine. Caucasian Black Grouse and Guldenstadt’s Redstart continued to elude us, but John found 5 Great Rosefinch. 

Later Giorgi found a Caucasian Snowcock and eventually we discovered there were 7 on a patch of slope. 

Snowcocks, photo of five birds feeding on this steep rocky slope

For our final day we decided to follow exactly the same routine. We left Mestia at 06.00, which meant we were high in the mountains (about 3000 metres/10,000 feet) by 06.45 which was pre-sunrise. Temperatures were bitterly cold at first, but soon warmed up once the sun reached us. 

We were not to be successful with either Caucasian Black Grouse or Guldenstadt’s Redstart, but there was compensation in the form of much better views of at least 11 Great Rosefinch which included adult males, females and fledged young.

Great Rosefinch adult female upper and moulting adult male

As with the other days we were back in Mestia by about 13.30 and afternoons usually involved some leisurely birding around the town. Birds seen included Red-backed Shrike and Siberian Stonechat, plus John heard Black Woodpecker.

Siberian Stonechat

After breakfast on the 17th we returned to Sakhalvasho, this time with a stop at the Maltakva river mouth, which added several species to the trip list; Slender-billed, Mediterranean and Little Gulls, Whiskered Tern and Little Stints, though none were particularly notable. We reached Sakhalvasho at 15.40, so there was time for a quick dash up to the counting station, though (courtesy of Trektellen) we already knew there hadn’t been any special numbers of raptors while we were away. 

Sakhalvasho 18th to the 24th September 

Numbers of Honey Buzzards had reduced and the age profile had changed with the majority now being juveniles. Black Kites were now the commonest raptor and there was a huge count of 35,351 on the 19th, Steppe Buzzard numbers were increasing and we counted 432 on 20th. Lesser Spotted Eagle numbers had also increased and we counted 40-80  each day along with our first Steppe and Greater Spotted Eagles of the trip. 

Honey Buzzard dark juvenile

On the 19th we also saw another Crested Honey Buzzard and our first Steppe Eagle. As you would expect the second period of our visit to Sakhalvasho saw an increase in the number of aquila eagles.

Crested Honey Buzzard - another adult male

The 22nd was a good day for eagles with an official count of 171 Lesser Spotted Eagles, 5 Greater Spotted Eagles and 7 Steppe Eagles. The 22nd also saw a White Pelican fly north. 

Chorokhi Delta 

Our third and final visit to the Chorokhi delta was on the 21st September. It was again very good for birds with a BW Pratincole, excellent views of Citrine Wagtail and several Siberian Stonechats. This area would make a superb reserve and although that has been proposed in the past nothing has ever happened. That is particularly sad as it is spoilt by uncontrolled and excessive shooting.

Black-winged Pratincole

Citrine Wagtail - adult female
Several of the hunters focus on Quail, but they will shoot almost anything, as evidenced by the hunter at the river mouth who shot a Glossy Ibis and a Ruff. 

Recovering a shot Glossy Ibis

Shooting and Trapping 

Most wild birds are protected, but there is no enforcement and illegal shooting is a major problem. Migrating raptors are targeted and gunshots are a depressingly frequent sound at Sakhalvasho. 

We also saw Sparrowhawk trapping with birds lured into nets with RB Shrikes used as bait. 

Hunters with nets and a Red-backed Shrike lure
A mist net is suspended between the two poles and when in operation the trapper will hide inside the shelter with a pole on which there is a RB Shrike which has been blinded by having its eyelids sewn together. If the trapper sees a Sparrowhawk approaching he will poke the pole out next to the net, shake it so the shrike flutters and if the Sparrowhawk sees it and strikes it will fly into the net. 

Sparrowhawks which have been trapped are primarily used to hunt Quail. They are said to be released at the end of the season. 


All of us suffered at some stage with what seemed to be either a stomach bug or a virus or perhaps even both. For two of us it was very minor, but Mike had to go to the local health centre and Martin was very ill on the journey to Mestia, but still managed to make the mountain trip the next day. 


A brilliant trip, we recorded 157 species of which 92 species were seen at Sakhalvasho. It's a different experence to Besh Barmag where there is much more variety in the migrating birds but fewer raptors. 

The timing worked very well. We arrived in time for the huge passage of Honey Buzzards on the 6th and the days after we left on the 24th were not particularly good. 

The timing of the mountain trip was good and fortunately we didn’t miss any big raptor days while we were away. We opted for three full days in the mountains, as we felt that to have only one or two days would leave us very much at the mercy of the weather. In the event we enjoyed three days of blue sky and saw the mountain scenery at its best. The only downside was our failure to see either Caucasian Black Grouse or Guldenstadt’s Redstart. Both occur in the area and we searched hard, but failed to see them. For whatever reason they just weren’t about. The Caucasian Snowcock and Great Rosefinches were excellent, as were the other mountain birds we saw. 

The food and accommodation were very good, and in particular Ruslan and Mari at Sakhalvasho were extremely helpful.