Getting a Buzz(ard)

Common buzzard (Marek_Szczepanek) Wikimedia
Common buzzard (Marek_Szczepanek) Wikimedia

This weekend, thank goodness, the weather bucked the trend and we experienced luminous sunshine and improbably blue skies from dawn till dusk. We sat outside to eat lunch on both days – a rare event this year – and attacked the garden tasks we have been saving up till now. We were not the only ones to profit from the uncommon warmth.

Tuning up for spring

For the past few days we have noticed greater activity among the small bird population in our garden. The fact that we have noticed it could be attributed to our being outside, which has not happened often since New Year. But there is a definite sense of spring in the air and the birdsong is starting to reinforce it.

Ivy covers a couple of our older plum trees. The blackbirds adore the profusion of ivy berries and we have enjoyed hearing their signature chuckling sound as they strip the fruit. We are looking forward to the male blackbird occupying his spring perch right on top of our pigeonnier and serenading his mate (or warning off his rivals) at dawn.

Buzzards take to the skies

A sure sign of anticyclone weather, however, is the appearance of buzzards (buses in French) high in the sky, taking advantage of the thermals to cruise above the fields before gliding down to catch their prey. Before we moved here, I had never seen a buzzard. Here, they are part of the landscape.

The most common species here is – not surprisingly – the Common Buzzard (buse variable; buteo buteo in Latin), which attains up to 56 cm and 1.3 kilos, with a wingspan of more than a metre. They are normally a darkish brown with mottled chest and underside of the wings but they can be lighter in colour and sometimes almost white.

They feed on small mammals, chicks and reptiles but I have also seen one swooping down and grabbing a couleuvre (grass snake) in its talons and flying off with it twisting and writhing in its grasp. In fact, the SF informs me that in Swedish buzzards are called ormvråk, where orm means snake.

For such large birds they are remarkably manoeuvrable. We have seen them threading between closely-spaced trees in the woods down our lane. More often, they are sailing high up while prospecting for prey down below. Once, while driving along the Villefranche-de-Rouergue bypass, I saw a column of at least 20 buzzards soaring upwards as they caught the updrafts. They barely need to move their wings – just make the occasional navigational adjustment. You hear them before you see them since they utter a haunting, raucous cry.

When they are not wheeling around in the sky – usually if the weather is bad – they occupy whatever perch they can find. You often see them hunched singly in trees by the roadside, like ghostly sentinels. They particularly like the round hay bales that the farmers produce in late spring. They offer perfect perches for buzzards to survey the newly-cut fields at close quarters – only a short hop to get their talons into a mouse.

Not everyone loves them…

Naturally, other members of the bird world don’t like them. Crows, in particular, are averse to buzzards, perhaps because they are afraid the buzzards will raid their nests. Around here, it’s a common sight to see crows mobbing a buzzard. But, taking advantage of their extraordinary manoeuvrability, buzzards can turn upside down in full flight and slash at the crows with their talons. We have seen this on several occasions. Nonetheless, they don’t hang around when they are outnumbered.

We are glad that the local rodent population meets demand. We have also noticed buzzards hovering over the chicken farm down the road, so they are presumably partial to a bit of poulet au chasseur as well.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

14 comments

  1. I love watching the buzzards ride the thermals, there’s a huge one that sits on a vine post at the end of our track, it’s a magnificent bird, I just wish it wouldn’t leave bits of its prey around where the dogs find it (very smelly).

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    • We have one that sits on a telegraph post down the lane and glares down balefully at the car when we drive past. However, they are cleaner around here than chez vous – or someone else consumes their leftovers!

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  2. Our house is close by and one of the joys of visiting it is the birdlife. The garden is filled with the beautiful songs of the Blackcap and the Nightingale in spring and we’ve had Hoopoes visiting us in early summer . We also hear the mewing of the buzzards on the hunt for prey and the very strange sounds of the Scops owls after dark. Your blog helps me to keep in touch when I can’t be there myself -thank you. Glad the weather has perked up a bit!

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    • We (or rather my husband) keep statistics about the arrival date of the various summer visitors. We’ll have to wait a few weeks for hoopoes, cuckoos and nightingales but there’s plenty of other birdlife. We used to hear a Scops owl here but have’t heard one for years. Glad to be keeping you up to date – you certainly have missed nothing as far as the weather is concerned! But we have had several days of sunshine now, which was greatly needed.

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  3. ‘Buzzard’ has such a nasty connotation. I’m glad to know they’re really buteo buteo; I think that’s what I’ll call them now. We have a lot of kites along our river valley as well that also swoop over the fields hunting for unwary mice!

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    • We also see the occasional kite here but the buzzards are far more common. We used to have a lot of owls of various types here too, but their numbers seem to have declined, alas.

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  4. Great post, Vanessa. We have always enjoyed watching birds in the garden: in Tanzania, the favourite was the robin-chat, in Uruguay the kiskadee. Even here, in this urban jungle, we get a woodpecker pecking hopelessly at the window of the next-door high-rise…

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    • We enjoy watching the antics of the blue tits and great tits on the fat balls that we hang out for them. In previous years, we have also had nuthatches and even a woodpecker that managed to cling onto them. A woodpecker also pecks at our house – at least the exterior wooden bits – which is a bit disconcerting.

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  5. How interesting! We don’t have these kinds of buzzards over here in North America. I guess our version over here would be the red-tailed hawk. I see them often in my backyard flying around. I was once privy to watching one eating a squirrel up in a tree. Interesting to see the food chain in action but let’s just say watching the bird tear into the squirrel definitely made me lose my appetite!

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    • Thanks, Kate. It was inspired by sitting out at lunchtime over the weekend and watching them wheeling around above us. It was so nice to get out in the sunshine at last rather than sitting hunched inside looking out at the greyness.

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