Uncommon sighting

Let’s Chirp with Tim Cockcroft

STRANGE RAPTOR: The honey buzzard is extremely variable in plumage Picture: TIM COCKCROFT

DURING December, on one of my tours, we were driving a backroad near the Fish River, when we stopped and got out to see what was around.

One of my clients looked up in the air and asked, “What’s that eagle-thingy up there?” I looked up and saw a slightly larger than medium raptor circling above us. I was ready to dismiss it as a steppe buzzard – a very common bird during our summer months – but something made me look again.

I noticed that the wings were way too heavily barred for it to be a steppe buzzard, I then started to suspect that it was a European honey buzzard, as there had recently been an increase of reports and sightings of this otherwise uncommon bird in our area.

This bird has several distinctive features that make it easy to identify, one of which being the tail pattern – two very narrow bands at the base of the tail, close together, and one broader band at the tip of the tail. Just as I wanted to look for this feature, it disappeared over a ridge… but the client who had seen the bird in the first place had photos.

Before we had a chance to look at the photos, the bird appeared again, flew to a tree quite far off and perched. I used the powerful zoom on my trusted Canon SX60 camera to take a few photos, as binoculars weren’t going to let me see some other features I needed to see. I looked at my camera screen… voila! Pale eye? Yes! Small, almost pigeon-shaped head? Yes! Rather thin, hooked beak? Yes! We then checked my client’s flight photo. Distinctive tail pattern? Yes! European honey buzzard indeed!

About a week and a half later, I was leading another birding tour near Riet River, when a strange looking raptor flew overhead. Photos were taken and it was another European honey buzzard. This was a different individual, as it was more heavily marked below than the bird described above. Let me explain… Despite the distinctive (and consistent) features that I have already mentioned, the honey buzzard is extremely variable in plumage, coming in pale forms, barred forms, heavily spotted forms, dark forms and other forms in between.

Where does the name “honey buzzard” come from? Well, it feeds on wasps and bees. The Afrikaans name is “wespedief” (wasp thief)… very apt.

Well, that’s it for now folks. Keep an eye on those raptors… you might just have this special bird in your midst. Happy birding!

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