King of the Skies

169

“It’s definitely dead.” I say, interrupting our Sunday afternoon walk in the middle of a deserted country lane.

“Well, done, Miss Marple.” My husband stares at the dead rabbit. Glassy eyes stare back, whiskers and soft fur moving gently in the breeze. It could be a taxidermy exhibit or a discarded toy.

“There’s barely a scratch on it. It can’t have been a car.”
But looking closer, there are scratches. It seems something has grabbed the rabbit, then for some reason dropped it – possibly from a height that was enough to kill the poor thing. Then we hear it, the unmistakeable ‘mewing’ of a buzzard, its plaintive cry calling far above our heads. And it’s brought company. Shading our eyes from the sun, we peer up into the cloudless sky and count four raptors gliding over the open fields, gradually circling lower until they are over the lane. The buzzards call to each other, flying so close that at times their wing tips seem to be touching. A family perhaps; parents teaching the juveniles to hunt. I get the uneasy feeling that we’re being watched.

“Come on,” I say. “We can’t stand here all day.” But I could. Watching these enigmatic birds of prey is hypnotic. Earlier in the week, I stood in our garden and spectated as a posse of crows chased a lone buzzard out of their neighbourhood. It seemed to take delight in goading them, weaving circles around the smaller birds before soaring effortlessly upwards on powerful wings that reach nearly a meter and a half at full stretch.

This is one cool customer. Hunting in daytime, the buzzard holds its wings straight and still as it glides on thermal currents, its tail feathers spread like a fan. This raptor makes it all look so easy. One wildlife expert even described the buzzard as ‘sedentary’, although the aerobatic flying displays during breeding season are anything but, with a catalogue of spectacular dives and loop-the-loops.

Once a buzzard has found a mate, they’ll stay together for life, building a series of bulky nests which they regularly ‘decorate’ with bits of ferns and other greenery. Once the eggs, have hatched (normally two or three in mid-April) and the chicks are mature enough to be left in the nest, both parents hunt for food. It’s such a pair that I’ve seen gliding over the garden and surrounding fields, a good hunting ground for their favourite food – rabbit. If bunnies aren’t on the menu, they’ll settle for small rodents, birds, worms and insects, and there are reports of them catching snakes. The buzzards have made themselves unpopular in some areas due to their taste for pheasant, and gamekeepers can legally shoot the predators under licence.

We had a trio of young pheasants trotting round the garden, entertaining, but gormless – easy pickings for a hungry buzzard.

But the best view of these impressive raptors has been from the car.
On a stretch of dual carriageway flanked by fields and woodland, a buzzard regularly perches on a post only metres from the road. The road-kill caused by our many vehicles is welcome food for a buzzard. Its ability to hover, then throw itself into a rapid dive, gives it a chance to swoop down between passing cars to retrieve the carrion. Then it’s back to the sentry post to watch and wait. One day I nearly drove off the road due to my staring at this huge bird! It gazed back, looking haughtily down its hooked beak. Those amber eyes are like a telescope, able to spot a moving rabbit at a mile away, or from 300 feet above the ground. After a moment, the buzzard nonchalantly turned its head away, shuffled its mighty talons and scanned the field over its muscular shoulder. The rabbits had better watch out.

By Claire Thurlow

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