As I worked on the dry stone wall over Easter, I heard buzzards overhead. Lifting my eyes, I watched as a pair soared in from the field up-slope. They landed in two tall oaks, either side of me, without minding I was there. I was, unusually, unaccompanied so was able to remain completely still and silent. They were so close I could see the brown feathers of the bird’s backs, their paler throat markings and light chest bands, and their yellow talons clutching the branches. Sharing my woodland space with these birds was a special moment, and I watched knowing it wouldn’t last long. Both heads cocked towards me as the buzzards took in their surroundings. I must have looked suspect as one, then the other, lifted effortlessly out of the trees to soar back out over the fields.
We have been lucky. Every year since owning the wood, buzzards have nested in one or other of our trees. In our first year, (four years ago now), the buzzard’s nest was in a tree that we had a hope of climbing and Mark and a friend, both B.T.O.1 qualified bird ringers, decided to place a metal ring on one leg of each buzzard chick in the nest. These rings are light and robust, and carry a unique identification code which if ever seen in the field, or less happily, found on a dead bird, can contribute to our understanding of the individual but also the species in general. We had watched the adult birds sitting on the nest and seen when they began to bring back food so were able to identify a day on which the hatchlings would be at the right age – too young and a chick’s leg would not be the right size to have the ring fitted, too old and you risk the birds trying to flap out of the nest before they are ready to fly. It was nerve-wracking. I daren’t look as Mark climbed the tree, disappearing up into the canopy with ropes and bags. But, as a hessian shopping bag slowly descended through the branches, I and the children watched intently. A second bag was gingerly lowered to the ground, and was followed in a far less streamlined way, by Mark. The bags looked heavy. When the first buzzard chick was lifted out, it was the size of your average chicken, and though deceptively covered in a soft grey down, it was already equipped for life as a bird of prey. Its talons were splendid and the beak sharp and strong; there was no doubt about the need for leather work-gloves to handle this bird. And yet, it lay calmly as its ring, carrying its own personal code, was gently and loosely closed round its leg, then it sat and watched quietly while its nestling was similarly adorned.
The nest the chicks had been sitting in was typical of a buzzard nest – made in the fork of a tree out of branches and twigs, lined with moss and green leaves. According to Mark it hadn’t smelt too good as, in addition to the chicks, it had contained bits of birds and mammals, including a reasonably sized section of a grey squirrel. Buzzards usually lay two to three eggs which take around thirty five days to hatch; fledging takes fifty to fifty five days. Our chicks would fledge surprisingly quickly from this stage, and as we handled them below, we could hear the parents calling above; it was time to return these marvellous birds to their nest. They were hoisted back up the tree and carefully settled. Later in the day, the parents were seen back at the nest. Despite being incredibly diligent to ensure the process of bird ringing is carried out with minimal disturbance, it is always a relief to see the birds carrying on as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary has happened.
I wondered at Easter, as I looked at the birds above me by the dry stone wall, whether either of them could be one of the chicks we ringed four years ago. I hadn’t brought my binoculars and the birds weren’t that close. It was pleasing to think that they might have been ‘home grown’. Only a quarter of buzzard chicks reach maturity, but if you count all the chicks that have been born in the wood since we owned it, on average, some should survive to have young of their own. From the 1970s, when buzzard numbers had plummeted due to the use of organochlorine pesticides (now banned) and human persecution, numbers have quadrupled. Buzzards are now a common sight round the United Kingdom with nesting birds in every county. They look magnificent as they soar on wings spanning well over a metre. Their mewing call is a distinctive sound in our wood where they roost and nest. Even today, as I walked through the bluebells, I caught sight of a pair, drifting silently from their perch, through the tree tops and out over the bay. Perhaps one of that pair was a chick we watched grow four years ago, perhaps not, but it is good to know that we have at least one pair in the wood again this year; it’s wonderful to see our wood playing a small part in the return of these majestic birds to our skies.
1 British Trust for Ornithology