The hygiene inspectors of the high fells

PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Buzzard in flight

Buzzard in flight

It's a tough life for buzzards, and only a quarter of young ones live to reach breeding maturity. But they are one of nature's great survivors<br/><br/>Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon

High above the Cheviot fells, two buzzards are circling effortlessly on the summer breeze. They're on the lookout for an unwary rabbit, or perhaps a Northumbrian blackface sheep that's come to grief, for these are the hygiene inspectors of the high fells, a countryside clean-up service with a taste for carrion and roadkill.

The footpath takes us right beneath their spiralling flight path and we can make out the attractive tawny and white patterns of their wing feathers. Buzzards come in a variety of colours, from almost completely white to very dark brown, but both of these individuals are a typical rich brown, with white patches on the undersides of their wings, and short, barred tails.

One of the birds is calling, a high-pitched clear, almost gull-like call that rings out across the hillside. And then we hear it returned, from a copse of trees over to our right. It's almost certainly an immature bird in the trees, and we guess that the flying adult is encouraging it to take to the wing.

By this stage of the late summer the young bird will have fully fledged, but like many youngsters it takes a bit of persuading to strike out on its own and stop relying on hand-outs from its attentive parents.

Now is a good time to see buzzards on the wing, as their young taste independence and test their new-found flight skills. Buzzards are soaring raptors, very good at riding the breeze, and capable of hanging as still as a kestrel on the right updraft.

From high above they scan the ground looking for prey, which can be anything from mice, rats, voles and shrews, to rabbits, young hares, squirrels and weasels. They will even take reptiles, amphibians and large insects - buzzards are catholic eaters.

When something is spotted, the buzzard drops from above, killing the animal on the ground. Buzzards lack the air speed to take other birds in flight, though they do occasionally drop onto nesting ground birds such as pheasants and partridge.

You don't have to trek to the remoter hills of the North East to see buzzards - although it's hard to beat the sight of a buzzard soaring over upland moors. The buzzard population has been booming to such an extent that it's now almost certainly the UK's commonest bird of prey, and as available upland habitat has been fully colonised, the birds have moved into lowland farms, some even into urban areas.

In fact a mixed landscape of woodland for nesting and open grassland for hunting is ideal habitat. Look for birds soaring over woodland slopes, or perched on bare trees, fence posts or even electricity pylons. When winter wheat is harvested, you can often spot a buzzard perched on a straw bale. They will also wander about on the ground in grassy or ploughed fields in a slightly ungainly waddle, looking for earthworms.

For all their aerobatic skill, buzzards frequently hunt from a perch, and can wait patiently for hours, sitting on a fence post or telegraph pole, until they spot prey, before swooping down for the kill. Despite a wingspan of up to 135cm (4 ft 6in), a buzzard rarely weighs more than 1kg (2.2 lb) and can eke out an existence on as a little as 150 gm (6oz) of food a day.

The only other large raptor in the North East that you might at first glance mistake for a buzzard is the slightly larger red kite, but these look totally different in flight, with longer, narrower wings which bow down, quite unlike the shallow V-shaped raised buzzard's wings.

Red kites have the edge when it comes to aerobatic ability, but buzzards can put on a pretty good display of their own, especially during courtship, when pairs wheel high in the sky, tumble towards earth, then climb and stoop again, brushing wings as they pass. It's all part of the pair bonding that keeps a male and female together for life.

Our Cheviot pair will defend their territory vigorously, occasionally tangling in the air with trespassing buzzards looking to establish their own patch. But you're just as likely to see them in aerial dogfights with crows. Buzzards will take crow chicks from their nests, so the two species aren't friendly. A buzzard with young in the nest can even be aggressive towards people who approach too closely, and the birds have been known to swoop down and rake the transgressor with their talons.

For centuries the buzzard was persecuted by gamekeepers, and by the start of the twentieth century it was only surviving in upland strongholds in Scotland, Wales, Cumbria and south west England. It suffered further when myxomatosis wiped out 99 per cent of Britain's rabbits, and again when organochlorine pesticides poisoned many birds of prey.

It remains a tough life for buzzards, and only a quarter of young buzzards survive to breeding maturity. Those that do make it will only live an average of eight years, though they can survive to the age of 25.

But in the past quarter of a century persecution has reduced, rabbits have flourished, and pesticide poisoning has become rare. In that period the number of breeding pairs of buzzards has jumped from 12,000 to more than 60,000.

Some ornithologists believe the population could continue growing to reach 100,000 pairs, if all of the available habitat is fully exploited. We know of at least three regular buzzard nesting territories within a mile of our own home, and the magnificent sight of buzzards soaring over the fields and woodland is becoming an uplifting everyday occurrence.

As buzzards continue to recolonise the North East it's a sight that will become increasingly common throughout the region. So whenever and wherever you are out and about, keep an eye on the sky and listen out for the shrill call of the wild buzzard high above, one of nature's great survivors.

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