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How the buzzards of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire battled back

PUBLISHED: 16:57 06 May 2015 | UPDATED: 17:02 06 May 2015

Common buzzard (Buteo buteo) with prey in the rain (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Common buzzard (Buteo buteo) with prey in the rain (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Archant

Sitting on motorway lampposts, gliding over hilltops and sometimes beating a hasty retreat... our own ‘bird of prey’. Sue Bromley finds out more

They can sound like a mewling cat, swoop down from their showing off in the skies as apparently ferocious predators, but are often seen scuttling away when harassed by crows or even smaller spirited birds.

Buzzards, once a rare sight in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, are now a success story as breeding pairs have rapidly spread across much of both counties since the 1990s. The Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo to give the bird its scientific title, is finally living up to its name.

In the UK they were virtually confined to the most western parts of the UK by 1875, courtesy of mass killings on estates and in the countryside. The two world wars, with less hunting, allowed them to get going again but both the loss of rabbits to myxomatosis and the introduction of some pesticides soon saw them in rapid decline again.

The withdrawal of the dangerous pesticides, and a more enlightened approach by gamekeepers, gave them a chance – and the buzzards took it. By the turn of this century they were once again recorded in every UK county.

At this time of year they are entering the main breeding period, which begins with those fantastic aerial displays before the female lays two to four eggs in a treetop nest in April. Just over a month later they start to hatch. Not all will survive but those that do provide a story of an intriguing lifecyle.

Now author Peter Dare has turned a lifetime fascination into ‘The Life of Buzzards’, an excellent read for both us amateur enthusiasts who sometimes marvel at the birds from our gardens, to ornithologists who have developed a more intense interest.

For the first time, population activities are followed through successive seasonal stages of their life cycle. These include the vital and inter-related aspects of buzzard territories and social behaviour, diets and hunting methods, food requirements, prey abundance and breeding success, survival and life spans and how buzzard numbers and distribution have changed, particularly in relation to the influence of man.

The book also demonstrates how well buzzards have adapted to living in our modern and rapidly-changing landscapes, constantly adapting their habits in response to prey resources and environmental conditions.

In the book’s first section, The Year of the Buzzard , the sequential changes in the composition and behaviour of a Buzzard community, their seasonal patterns of food habits and hunting methods, their breeding season from courtship until fledging of broods and their subsequent dispersal are outlined.

The second section, Special Topics, provides greater detail of six key aspects of their ecology: Territory; Energy and Food Needs; Predation; Food Supply and Breeding Success; Demography and Population Dynamics; and Changes in Buzzard Abundance.

As we said, attitudes to buzzards have changed, although in 2007 a buzzard was found in an illegal pole trap in the Hungerford area. In the 1980s Berkshire was still at the easternmost edge of the buzzard breeding range in Britain, and it was a scarce visitor. Today all but one small patch of the county has breeding buzzards. Similarly, in Buckinghamshire it was rarely seen until the 1990s, usually south of the Chiltern escarpment, but rapid western expansion has changed all that. Buzzards are less likely to be spotted in the north of county, although a recent sighting was at Newport Pagnell.

Among the places they are regularly seen are:

• Berkshire: Hosehill Lake, Theale; Moor Green Lakes, near Finchampstead; Woolhampton; Crookham; Mill Pond Lake, Bracknell; Braywick Nature Reserve and Sindlesham.

• Buckinghamshire: Beacon Hill, Ellesborough; Westhorpe, Marlow; Marlow Bottom; Whitchurch; Upper Winchendon; Great Kimble; Westcott and Prestwood.

For more information see www.berksbirds.co.uk and bucksbirdclub.co.uk.

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The Life of Buzzards by Peter Dare

Liberally illustrated with photos and maps, full colour throughout, softback £22.99 end March 2015. Whittles Publishing, 01593 731 333, www.whittlespublishing.com

.

Did you know?

The oldest wild buzzard known was 25 years old, but most live for around eight years.

But many young buzzards die before they reach the breeding age of three, mostly from starvation.

***

READ ON

Race meetings in Berkshire 2015 - Ascot, Newbury and Windsor - As the flat season gets underway – and we build up to Royal Ascot – Sue Bromley studies the formbook for what’s coming up at our local courses.

Protecting the woodland of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire - The woodlands of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire are such an important part of our heritage, whether it’s the ancient trees we marvel at, or more recently planted sites.

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