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Buzzards Soaring To Success
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In my last article I wrote about the resurgence in Suffolk of the come-back king the Little Egret. In a similar vein, another ornithological success story in East Anglia over the past few years has to be that of the Common Buzzard.

Buzzards are the commonest UK bird of prey and have always been an easy bird to see in the South West, Wales and Northern Britain, but it is only fairly recently, that they have become a familiar sight in Suffolk’s skies. On my local patch in the Gipping Valley last year our regular lunch-time raptor watching group, produced many Buzzard sightings the most impressive being a spring time grouping of 15 birds, soaring together over local woodland.

Buzzards are medium sized birds of prey soaring on broad wings often held in a shallow ‘v’ profile. A Buzzard’s plumage is highly variable, ranging from a uniform darkness to mainly white. The most common form however, is warm brown upperparts with whitish under surfaces and dark wing tips. They are not as obvious in the skies of Suffolk in winter as they are in spring, summer and autumn. In winter Buzzards tend to soar less flying unobtrusively and directly to their hunting sites and perching from a suitable viewpoint. This perch hunting can last for hours and I have seen one regularly this year hunting in the mornings from the bottom rungs of national grid pylons and also sitting on a telegraph pole at dusk over a rabbit warren. I’m afraid I don’t have the patience to fully record how long they can wait but I have often returned some hours later to find them sitting sentry-like in the same place.

This behaviour has led to them being described and even decried as a, “lazy bird” a “dull stupid bird” a “heavy, sleepy” or even “cowardly fellow” just, “dozing away his time on some old post”. In my view this tradition of attributing human traits to a wild bird can miss much of its essential character. I find them an interesting, adaptable, opportunistic species, one which always adds much to my bird watching in Suffolk.

I am very fortunate to live below a regular Buzzard flight path and don’t have to venture beyond my garden to watch them, especially at this time of year when they are displaying. Display is a form of pre-mating or bonding courtship practised by many birds and Buzzard displays can provide quite a spectacle. The display flight consists of both birds circling high in the sky and calling one bird usually following the other. Often I see the higher bird dive directly at the lower bird with legs grasped out in mock hunting mode. The pair will sometimes appear to go into a free-fall with much wing flapping and clutching and turning and twisting before recovering level flight. This behaviour has often lead to other birds from neighbouring territories or possibly even migrating birds getting involved in the show providing an entertaining combat of frantic calling and attack.

I have often seen a single intrusive male Buzzard appear as if from nowhere and try to muscle in on one courting pair over my house. This often leads to the intruder being seen off after much aerial posturing, providing quite a spectacle from a garden chair on a sunny morning!

I usually hear their high pitched plaintive call before I see them, searching the skies before locating their presence often high up in clear blue summer skies.

The Buzzard used to be confined more or less to the west of a line drawn down the centre of England. In the last two decades it has spread rapidly and dramatically eastwards and now can be found in significant numbers throughout all of Eastern England.

As is usual with such an increase in a bird population there is more than one reason for success. The myxomatosis outbreak in the 1950s wiped out huge swathes of the rabbit population and consequently one of the main prey items of Buzzards. Persecution by gamekeepers undoubtedly led significantly to the Buzzards decline and legal protection has to be the key reason for its more recent soaring success as a UK bird.

In Suffolk it is now a fairly common resident and winter visitor. It also passes through the county on migration. It first bred in 1999 and in that year there were just two other summer records of individual birds. Their remarkable comeback is evidenced in the recently published Suffolk Birds 2010* when over 600 records were submitted to Suffolk Bird recorders from 250 sites evenly distributed across the county.

Fact File

Latin name: Buteo buteo

Size: length: 54cm wing span: 120cm

Weight: M: 780g F: 1000g

Habitat: woods, moors, heaths, farmland

Food: mainly small mammals, also birds, reptiles, large insects and earthworms

Calls: a very distinctive plaintive cat-like mewing that can carry for long distances

BTO Conservation status: Green

European Population: 510,000 to 700,000 pairs

UK breeding population: 38,000 territories (summer)

The buzzard is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to kill, injure or take a buzzard, or to take damage or destroy an active nest or its contents.

Snapshot

“Finally in 1874, Babington aw a nest in Monk’s Wood Felsham at which one of the old birds had been killed and fed to the foxes. In the following year the birds tried again at the same place and the female was wounded on the nest. It was probably the last time the buzzard nested in Suffolk”

From W. H. Payn’s ‘Birds of Suffolk’ 1962 Barrie & Rockliff


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