Thrilling to the wild cry of a hunter of the skies

PUBLISHED: 17:24 11 November 2017

A buzzard hunting over the tree tops on the Holkham estate.

A buzzard hunting over the tree tops on the Holkham estate.

(c) copyright

Nature writer Simon Barnes has never lost the thrill of hearing the keening cry of the buzzard. He’s not alone.

That wild cry: look up! You have to look up, it’s against human nature not to look up, and there they were, two of them, skewered by the low sun of late autumn. They performed a stately pas de deux above the trees, the bright light picking out the browns and whites and turning them into silvers and golds.

I watched with quiet delight from my mobile bird-hide (American paint mare, 15.2 hands). These birds were just part of the countryside, and that in itself was slightly glorious.

Buzzard. Birds with immense confidence in their gliding and soaring flight, though with a rather raggedy wingbeat in between glides. A week or so back, on a day of big wind, I saw a buzzard hovering, though without a kestrel’s nonchalance. Buzzards make heavy weather of the hover: but they can do it all right, sometimes bringing off that trick when they glide at the exact speed of the wind, holding themselves both stationary and motionless above the surface of the earth.

I’ve known buzzards as impossible birds not once but twice. I remember the thrill of seeing a pair over the Fal Estuary in Cornwall when I was a boy: early 60s, that would be. I remember the sense of shocked privilege: the unbelieving thrill that I, of all people, was privileged to see such a bird.

They really were scarce at that time. The combination of gamekeeping and pesticides had caused their numbers to crash. Pesticides like DDT got into their systems from the diet and bizarrely, it caused their eggshells to thin. That sounds relatively trivial – but it meant that they were unable to reproduce.

With the banning of some of these pesticides the buzzards made a comeback. Eventually they were familiar birds once again in the West Country. Why didn’t they move further east? Two reasons were routinely suggested, probably both right. One was illegal persecution, the other was the growth of the rabbit population after myxomatosis. That meant that more buzzards could make a living in the same stretch of countryside. They didn’t expand from their West Country fastness because they had no need to.

Eventually a tipping point was reached. About 15 years ago I began to see them in East Anglia on a reasonably regular basis. After a while I no longer bothered – no longer needed – to tell anyone else I had seen a buzzard from home. They were becoming daily birds.

I remember my delight when a pair took up residence in a wood near where I lived in Suffolk. Now buzzards are back into all our lives: glance at a patch of woodland and there are two dark shapes above it, making interlocking circles. No need to look for the patterns on the plumage: the patterns in the sky tell you all you need to know.

It’s a fine thought that so many of our birds of prey - hammered hard, and some of them very close to national extinction - have made such a comeback. It’s a classic example of what we can do in the way of conservation when we put our minds to it.

Just about every bird of prey species is doing OK. There are the marsh harriers in East Anglia, and also red kites elsewhere – and the kites are beginning to establish a presence here. The big exception in Britain is the hen harrier, birds that make the great mistake of trying to make a living on moorland managed for grouse shooting.

Buzzards are one of those birds that give you hope. They were still scarce in East Anglia while the marsh harriers were making their famous comeback. But they are now doing well here, not just on nature reserves but as birds of the cultivated countryside. We’ve got something right: and that’s always worth a cheer. I kicked on into a canter with the sound of the buzzards ringing in our four ears.

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