Prize-winning writer and guest blogger, Conor Mark Jameson, author of Silent Spring Revisited, tells us what buzzards mean to him.
I was dismayed this week to hear of the Government’ plan to destroy buzzard nests as part of a trial to see if shooting interests can rear more pheasants to shoot. I find this entirely bizarre.
The piece below is from my forthcoming book Looking for the Goshawk, which is a search for the reason why wild birds and proximity to true wildness are integral to our well-being.
The buzzard has a special place in my affections, like a first love. I came face to face with one, on a fence post, at my own eye level, somewhere in the wilds of north-west Scotland on a family holiday. I’ve been a fan ever since. And just as I have since followed its fortunes as a recovering species, so it has seemed to follow me, shadowing my movements from west to east, to south. At each of the stop-off points in my life, the buzzard, widely persecuted in the modern age, has been reclaiming former haunts not far behind, on a roughly north-west to south-east trajectory: from the refuges of the remoter uplands (the Celtic fringes, you could say) to the lowlands, of both Scotland and England.
I witnessed as a schoolboy buzzards returning to rural north Ayrshire. I welcomed them back to the foothills of the Ochils while a student in Stirling. And I began to notice the first of them wheeling again over the western fringes of Edinburgh when I moved to find work there in the early nineties. I then moved south, first to Cambridge and then to near Sandy, Beds. And yes, I’m delighted to report that the buzzard has caught up with me again.
The realisation of just how much this is so came on a recent summer evening, as I laboured in the back garden over a cabin build. The distant, faintly nasal cries of a bird, almost gull-like, slowly penetrated my conscious mind. I realised that this was probably a young raptor of some kind, either in distress, or simply hungry. And so, I jumped the fence at the bottom of the garden and headed across the pasture, and down the hedgerow bordering the corn, in the direction of the sound. I got about 200 yards, half way to the oaks rising from the hedge line at the far end of the field. An adult buzzard launched forth from the crown of one and glided my way, mewing loudly, and anxiously. The hunger cries from the depths of the other oak promptly stopped.
And I did too. I had found out what I needed to know, for now, that there was almost certainly a nest there, and I needn’t prolong the anxiety of the birds by going any closer. I could do that in a few weeks, if and when the young fledged. The next four days played out to the same ‘feeeed meeee’ soundtrack, while a parent bird scanned the dry fields below for small movements.
Buzzards are conspicuous birds in flight, so it intrigues me they can nest so close, so unnoticed, at least until the young near fledging, and get really demanding. I have heard about the buzzard’s secretiveness before. I recall about ten years ago, when reports of buzzards locally were rare, but increasing, a local farmer telling me he thought a pair had already bred in a local wood. I thought it unlikely they could have done so without me, or people at the RSPB, where I work, knowing about it, even people who lived right beside this wood, and don’t miss much. But it couldn’t be totally ruled out.
At that time, the sighting of a buzzard hereabouts was a noteworthy event; an occasion. Reports would always cause a stir. There is something involuntary about our response to the sight of a buzzard spread on the sky. It is as though its very wings have your lungs on a string, and pull them upwards as it rises, on fanned feathers. A soaring buzzard often has an entourage of irate crows, flailing in its wake. This serves mainly to emphasise how expert a flier a buzzard is, how much more refined its lines, dignified its progress. Cool. Chilled out. Effortless. Serene. A ballet within a brawl, protected from the blows of its assailants by some invisible field created by total balance and mastery of the air.
It was just three years ago I was first able to confirm the successful breeding of buzzards very close to home. Then, with the permission of the estate and the several tenant farmers in my road, I visited a spinney and found a nest high in the crown of an oak, with young birds calling and adults nearby, clearly none too keen on the idea of me poking about below. I have since seen juveniles nearby, and even found a recently fledged bird dead between the wood and the roadside, probably a road casualty.
All good: but there is something extra heart-warming about seeing these birds from the garden, and even the sofa, or the bed, as they cruise overhead. And to hear them as well now, at the nest, gives me a particular sense of well-being, of inhabiting rural surroundings that are piecing some of their long missing parts back together. I like that the vexatious mutter of a magpie in the fruit trees tells me there’s a buzzard overhead. I like that the mournful pewww of the birds themselves makes me look up and see sometimes as many as seven of them ‘kettling’ high against the clouds, or the blue.
My nearest farmer neighbour had noticed the recent hunger calls of our young buzzards. We were chatting about the lack of summer rain. He’d had to move his cattle to another pasture. The wheat, and the beans, were fading in places for want of a decent shower. The persistent pleas of these growing birds made a fitting soundtrack to a parched landscape. He was content to have the buzzards back, though he remarked, as people often will, that it might mean fewer skylarks for us. I told him I thought we could have both. I later dropped him off a leaflet with simple advice on how to make crops extra appealing for nesting larks.
Though you don’t often see them doing anything terribly energetic, buzzards will pounce on anything small enough to hold onto easily, and to eat. They are not renowned for their dash or drama as predators. They are as likely to be seen hunting for worms and beetles as anything else, and will tend to tackle only the small and weak where rabbits are concerned, often preferring their meals ready dead. Elegant scroungers, you could say.
I often cast my mind back to that first-love moment with the buzzard, on that family holiday. All my siblings and cousins remember it too, and my parents needed no reminding, though we’ve debated whether it was Mull or Arisaig, ’72 or ’73. I was the youngest of the troupe, gazing down at the injured rabbit on the roadside. The buzzard that we inadvertently flushed from this catch is watching us back, from the fencepost, doe-eyed, soft feathered. Beautiful, yet quietly lethal.
It’s a bird I still associate with holidays, so I think that’s part of the special feeling I can now enjoy from the front room or the back garden. This used to be strictly a special bird of special places, seen only on special trips. It fair lifts the spirits to have that kind of specialness brought a whole lot closer to home. Again.
Conor Mark Jameson
If you’d like to know more about buzzards, try RSPB British Birds of Prey by Marianne Taylor.