Rough-legged Buzzards and the Need for Certainty

Now I’m not referring to some old, cantankerous curmudgeon with unstable legs, but a bird of prey that visits our shores at this time of year in few enough numbers to make it bit of rarity for most birdwatchers, including me.

Last week, on a brief family holiday in Norfolk, we came upon a small crowd of birdwatchers who had all pulled up at the roadside bins (binoculars) in hand and scopes (telescopes on tripods) at the ready. I’m not sure what the collective noun is for such a group but, given the hasty pull-up manoeuvre I immediately executed on spotting the group, it might be ‘a screech of birdwatchers’. I quickly established that the bird being sought was a Rough-legged Buzzard that had been frequenting this particular marshland area over the last few days.

Scanning around it soon became clear that there was no shortage of birds of prey. Two Red Kites drifted over the sand dunes while about three Common Buzzards either sat on posts or soared in circles over the marsh. To be honest, to the untrained eye, a Rough-legged Buzzard is very similar to a Common Buzzard so the task before me was not that easy. Added to this was the dwindling patience of my family sitting in the car behind me, at first graciously but, as time wore on, increasingly petulantly. I eventually spotted a likely bird in the far-off distant but as the bird was drifting away I couldn’t be sure. At the same time another birder shouted, ‘I’ve got it’ and proceeded to give directions over to where I had been looking.

After further scanning, the bird, now a small dot, dropped down into some cover and out of sight. There was a generally unenthusiastic murmur from the assemble ‘screech’ of birders but the original claimant gallantly piped up with ‘I know what I saw, and that was it’, but I did detect perhaps the slightest doubt in his voice. Sadly, I had to move on and relegate the sighting to a ‘maybe’ status but certainly not an official record other than perhaps of my disappointment.

On returning home, I checked the days bird sightings for Norfolk and indeed three Rough-legged Buzzards had been in the vicinity that day! What bothered me more though and perhaps added a little salt to my wounds was the report of a possible (and extremely rare) Eleonora’s Falcon in the same area. I had indeed seen a puzzling falcon earlier in the day, at first thinking it a Peregrine and then putting it down as a Hobby before jogging on to catch up with the non-birding family. Now, with the report in the sightings bulletin I wasn’t so sure…maybe I had not only missed out on Rough-legged Buzzards but perhaps also an Eleonora’s Falcon! I resolved to remain philosophical about the matter…there would be more Rough-legged Buzzards and the Eleonora’s Falcon, well, it was probably just a regular Hobby.

You can imagine my delight however as this week a Rough-legged Buzzard has been sighted in Hertfordshire and only half an hour away from where I live. The first for the county since 2008 and so today I headed out in the rain to find the bird. What a contrasting experience it was to that in Norfolk last week! On turning down the small lane that runs through the farmland in question I immediately came across a handful of birders parked up next to the road, bins and scopes at the ready: certainly not a ‘screech’ but maybe more of a ‘squeak’ of birders.

I was greeted with the words, ‘I’ve got it in my scope if you want’ and without further ado I looked through the obliging scope and there it was: a Rough-legged Buzzard just across the other side of the field! As if to confirm this triumph the sun broke through and a double rainbow drifted over the hills with the promise of fairer weather.

Being a juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard and a very pale plumaged individual identification proved no problem. The white rump, the clearly marked wings and the dark belly patch were all in evidence and even a quick glance would mark this bird out as at least an unusual Buzzard. And what about those rough legs? Well, the feathery legs that give the bird its name weren’t that visible but identification is rarely about one single trait, rather a combination of key diagnostics that together confirm a species’ identity.

With no family in the car behind me (I love them really) I was at leisure to enjoy the bird as it perched atop a hedge and drooped its wings to dry in the sun before circling a bit to avoid a walker and her dogs.

A certain sighting at last that amply dispelled the disappointment of the week before along with any fantasies of Eleonora’s Falcons or the suchlike!

Rough-legged Buzzard by local birder Jay Ward


One thought on “Rough-legged Buzzards and the Need for Certainty

  1. A wonderful tale to which I thoroughly relate to in many ways! My family, although nature lovers, are also a point!! Happy one turned up in your neck of the woods! We had one here over our meadows last year and I was ecstatic to catch a shot and then have it confirmed.
    PS I am Tania Balfe’s sister and have at last started blogging…today!

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