There is definitely something about the lazy, hazy days of August that transmits a kind of soporific lull with most birds choosing the sound of silence as they go through the moult. An invisible, cloying, blanket seems to descend upon the landscape somehow muffling all soundas summerbegins to hint that its end is nigh. The first hints of autumn may soon be subtly changing textures and hues. Thus, many of the trees are beginning to look tired; that freshness has gone from the leaves. It is as if they know their fate. In another month, the chlorophyll will have retreated sufficiently for those leaves to signal the inexorable progress towards another, cooler season. The annual shutdown approaches! If soon the leaves will begin to take on even stronger hues for their last, colourful, autumnal finale of the year, summer days are not yet, quite done.
Yet there are, as August drifts by, those members of the avian community which still want to have their say. In recent days there has for instance, been much mewing from high flying buzzards in this and many other airts. One writer once described this wild sound thus:- “That watchful, lordly and commanding call powerfully evokes all the history and wildness of high and ancient places.” Perhaps the current, very evident increase in buzzard mewing, which, although here hardly reflects a ‘high and ancient’ setting, may nevertheless, represent a newly found sense of freedom enjoyed by the parent birds, the job of nurturing their youngsters, to all intents and purposes, done. Yet, that increased level of vocalisation may also reflect the sense of freedom enjoyed by the youngsters themselves as they begin to explore their newly discovered world.
This is perhaps, our most common bird of prey, yet historically, it has been one of our most cruelly persecuted. It may well be its own worst enemy with its relatively ‘lazy’ flight patterns making it an easy target for the gun, despite enjoying the protection of the law down the years. However, there are those who still target buzzards, accusing them of taking young game birds. Thankfully, in recent times, the incidence of poisoned baits being laid in our landscape has fallen, yet buzzards and kites, both of which eagerly seize any opportunity to exploit carrion, are all too often the victims of such atrocities. Such incidents illustrate the utterly ruthless and selfish attitude of some minority sections of the shooting community.
Buzzards have certainly found their world to be one of ups and downs. The illegal introduction of myxomatosis in the nineteen fifties, had a knock on effect on buzzards, their numbers having increased markedly as rabbit populations had soared during the pre-war and immediately post-war years. When the dreaded myxi struck, initially the buzzard population enjoyed a real bonanza but soon, as rabbit populations plummeted, the feast was followed by a famine and as a result, buzzard breeding rates soon began to fall. There are places where in recent times, rabbit populations seem to have staged something of a recovery albeit that hereabouts no such recovery is evident. Such returning riches will I’m sure, be welcomed by buzzards universally!
Although back in the nineteenth century, rather unkindly described as, ‘dull, stupid and heavy, a sleepy and cowardly fellow’, the buzzard is in fact something of an opportunist. It may be accused of sitting around, either perched idly on some telegraph pole or on a tree for hours on end, simply hoping for some hapless rodent to come within range. Alternatively it can be seen drifting idly (some even suggest aimlessly) about the sky. Indeed, the buzzard is capable of turning its broad wings to many different ways of earning a living. Seldom in my experience is ‘aimless’ even a consideration in the buzzard mind-set, For instance, I once witnessed a buzzard drifting ‘harmlessly’ alongside a hedgerow, when a blackbird, in typically hasty fashion exploded from the vegetation. The buzzard turned ‘on a sixpence’ and plucked the fleeing merle out of thin air, a la sparrow-hawk! Buzzards also hover in their pursuit of small rodents, not as consummately as kestrels of course, yet often to pretty good effect. But carrion remains an important source of food and road kills on quieter roads are regularly exploited. But at worst, buzzards in the absence of other food sources, are not by any means, too proud to feast on worms and beetles, in which mode, they can look slightly ungainly and comical. Buzzards are definitely not at their best on the ground, their ‘glory’ being undoubtedly when they are on the wing.
In these parts of course, the buzzard is colloquially known as ‘the tourist’s eagle’. This is a sobriquet it has earned due to the supposition on the part of the many visitors to Scotland each summer, that the relatively large bird with a hooked beak, seen perched on that telegraph pole or tree, is an eagle. To those who are not familiar with eagles (probably most people!) I guess it is not such a surprising misconception. However, eagles seldom if ever perch on telegraph poles! One recent experience of watching a buzzard using all its muscles to ‘stand still’ on a brisk breeze coming off the sea near the top of a cliff, was cause enough to admire its superb control. But what surprised me was the fact that not only was it demonstrating its superb flying skill, it was also showing a surprising side to its character …. a taste for fun! Suddenly the bird dropped a stone it had been carrying in one of its talons and instantly went into a stunning and very rapid dive to catch it before it reached the ground, immediately returning to its mid-air station to repeat the game many times over! A side of buzzard personality I had not previously experienced.
Yet, as much as I personally admire buzzards, rejoice in that wild ‘mewing’ and much admire their drifting flight, the arrival of the similarly sized red kites in our skies some years ago now, has provided a new dimension. The calling of kites is perhaps slightly reedier than that of buzzards yet it conveys the same wild spirit in much the same way. Kites too soar and drift, proscribing fascinating patterns across our skies. Their passage is perhaps marginally more predictable and ordered, as they progress across the landscape in wide circles. Kites are less bulky, their wings thus appearing to be more voluminous. Indeed, perhaps because they are lighter and more finely proportioned, their flight can be accordingly, more breathtaking. But thus far I’ve yet to see a kite play with a stone in the manner of that lone buzzard. Both of these now familiar raptors animate our skies in their different ways but equally gloriously. But right now, whilst most other birds stay quiet, it is almost as if the local buzzards are issuing a wistful forecast that summer is slowly ebbing!