In a regular series, ALAN GANE MBE looks at the flora and fauna of the Lake District. This issue: the buzzard.
It Is always fascinating to watch the aerial display of the buzzard (Buteo buteo). Effortlessly floating on the wind, or soaring in the thermals, it is a majestic sight. We now have a considerable population of this raptor in the UK, probably over 500 pairs, but in the past it is a species which has been decimated by gamekeepers and, more recently, greatly reduced in numbers through the incidence of myxomatosis which robbed it of its prime source of food, the rabbit.
The buzzard is a relatively large bird, with a wing span of three to four feet; it has a rich brown back, paler underneath and with distinct pale patches beneath its broad, rounded wings. As my picture clearly shows it has a horn-coloured bill and yellow cere. It has large, scaly, yellow feet with substantial and hooked horn-coloured talons.
While the prime source of food is the rabbit, the buzzard will readily take small mammals such as field mice, voles, shrews and moles, and is not averse to lizards, worms, beetles and carrion. It may be seen to stand on its prey, insert the hooked beak and tear off pieces of flesh by throwing back its head. Its eyesight is extremely keen, being some eight times sharper than ours. It can thus spot prey at a considerable distance, and will glide to the attack with speeds of up to 75 miles an hour. While most commonly seen in flight, buzzards may occasionally be spotted sitting hunched on the limb of a tree, especially in winter, or on a post or pole. When in flight they are to be seen at all levels and may sometimes be spotted when walking in the fells, flying over the valleys below.
The nest is large and is comprised primarily of sticks and twigs, lined with heather and moss, most often adjoining the trunk of a tree, but rocky ledges are also used from time to time. Alternative nests are often constructed, primarily to mark out territories and to deter others from trespassing, thus reducing the competition for prey. Two or three eggs are laid in April or early May, which are white with reddish-brown markings. Incubation is carried out by both male and female and takes about 36 days. The young are also fed by both parents, but commonly not all survive to fledging. In late summer and autumn family groups may often be seen in flight together, soaring, diving and feinting attacks, the parents clearly schooling the young in the art of hunting in readiness for the all-too-soon time when they will have to fend for themselves. Adult birds can be heard making their plaintive ‘peeeiew’ call, while a similar but weaker call is made by the young, especially when awaiting food at the nest.