Large birds of prey seen soaring overhead or glimpsed fleetingly from a passing car can cause a great deal of confusion as to identity. Let’s have a look at three species that can be encountered hereabouts of similar size and basic shape and that often occupy adjacent habitats: marsh harrier, common buzzard and red kite.
The marsh harrier has a chequered history in the UK becoming extinct as a breeding species at the very end of the 19th century and being largely absent for much of the 20th. As a result of decreased persecution, restoration and conservation of prime breeding habitat and active protection, their numbers began to rise during the 1970s. I saw my first in 1976 and had not a clue what it was until I rummaged through my guide books! Today they can be encountered in many areas of East Anglia which is the species’ stronghold, and indeed have become established in other parts of the UK. There are now around 100 nests annually in Norfolk, and although many birds migrate to Africa during autumn, the species has built up an overwintering population in excess of 150 birds making it visible year-round.
The common buzzard was, until recently, a scarce sight in Eastern England with the main UK population inhabiting the west and north of the UK. At the end of the 1980s and into the 90s their fortunes took an upward turn when illegal releases and controlled reintroductions coincided with mass Continental influxes and a gradual eastwards expansion from western UK populations. Today they are probably the commonest raptor in the UK, with several hundred breeding pairs gracing our Norfolk skies. Common buzzards are by far the most likely large bird of prey to be seen in the county nowadays.
The red kite was once a common enough inhabitant of most of the UK, being found squabbling over scraps even in central London where in the 15th century it was afforded special protection in recognition of its role in clearing the streets of offal and refuse. As better sanitation was developed the birds moved out of cities but were highly persecution in the wider countryside. This led to a dramatic decline in numbers to such an extent that in the 1970s there were just a handful of pairs left in central Wales. A widespread reintroduction programme took place during the 1980s and 90s in several areas of England and Scotland and this has proved highly successful. The species has now spread far and wide breeding in East Anglia in 2008, the first time for well over a century. Red kites can now be seen regularly in many areas of the county and will associate with buzzards and other raptors.
Marsh harriers are generally to be found in or around large areas of reed bed, marsh or fen. They nest within reed beds and carry out most of their breeding, foraging and day to day activity therein. Smaller numbers do attempt to breed in agricultural crops, especially as prime reed marsh becomes heavily populated, but they are generally a bird of wetland habitats. However, when they have hungry mouths to feed during the summer months, they will actively hunt over farmland and other dry areas, taking them into buzzard and kite territory. They will seldom be encountered near any dense human habitation.
Common buzzards are a bird of open country interspersed with plentiful stands of trees. Our East Anglian landscape is much to their liking with most rural areas holding breeding pairs. They are much more tolerant of human presence than marsh harriers and can often be encountered on the periphery of urban areas and sometimes even within towns – the sight of one perched in full view atop a lamppost in Sheringham was a surprise. Sufficiently numerous nowadays, it is possible to see a migrating, wandering or soaring local from just about anywhere Even central Norwich will have them overhead every day – the cathedral peregrines spend a lot of time moving them on.
Red kites inhabit much the same areas as common buzzards and both species can often be seen together. In southern England they have become urbanised and will happily congregate in gardens where food scraps are provided. Some will even nest in large suburban gardens. At present in Norfolk they are mainly to be found in the north and west of the county, especially near the coast. However, sightings inland have become much more frequent and it is possible to encounter one just about anywhere.
Marsh harriers are slow moving raptors, hunting low over the ground on wings held in a shallow ‘V’ , hoping to surprise unsuspecting prey that itself does not possess speed. Water birds, amphibians, reptiles and small rodents are all taken as are the chicks of other bird species…..this female predated avocet chicks at Cley to such a degree that hardly any fledged that season.
During early spring, males will display over their chosen territory by performing a sky dance consisting of a series of loops, the bird diving at speed towards earth and pulling up sharply whilst emitting a high-pitched whistle. Sometimes pairs will tussle in mid-air.
Common buzzards have a wide-ranging diet. They will actively kill prey such as rabbits and small rodents but are just as likely to feast on roadkill or carrion. Buzzards hunt by soaring over likely habitat, sometimes hovering kestrel fashion, before pouncing on their victim, or they will wait patiently in a tree or on a fence post awaiting dinner to come to them. They will also stalk on the ground hunting worms and other invertebrates. Any large, generally brown, raptor seen perched by the roadside or on telegraph poles or fenceposts will in most cases be a buzzard. Raptors seen soaring in groups will almost certainly be mainly buzzards. A raptor seen perched on the ground is likely to be a buzzard.
They begin courting in early spring when their loud, piercing mewing calls carry over long distances. They will sometimes soar very high during this time, but their calls will give them away.
Red kites are essentially scavengers, feeding on carrion, roadkill and the delights to be unveiled at refuse tips and landfill. They have become a well known and popular wildlife attraction at certain locations in Wales where they will congregate to feed on chicken carcasses provided by local land owners. The birds will occasionally also stalk prey on the ground. Their call is similar to that of a buzzard but is harsher.
All species are of broadly equal size. All are primarily brownish or reddish brown although buzzards have an enormously varied plumage that ranges from almost white to dark brown. With experience, shape will solve any ID problems.
Common Buzzard. Note broad wings overlapping with wide tail. Dark carpal (elbow) patches are always present although sometimes obscured by heavy barring. Flight feathers are barred as is the tail. Only the tips of primary flight feathers are black. Chest generally forms a dark bib and underside is streaked with dark brown. Legs are yellow and eye is dark.
Marsh Harrier (male). Note long, slim wing with clear separation from long unmarked tail. Underside of wings are plain with extensive, distinct black primary wing tips. Underbelly streaked rufous brown, deeply hooked bill, yellow legs and yellow eye (not too obvious here but see later pics)
Marsh Harrier (female). Same long winged profile, with slimmer, longer tail than buzzard. Plumage of some sub-adult male marsh harriers (and I haven’t ruled out that this could be one such!) resemble female plumage which is dark brown with bright buff leading edge to wing (variable in extent) and cream crown. Note in all plumages tail is plain and unbanded. Eye is dark.
Red Kite. The most distinctive of the three. Although the underwing pattern is similar to the marsh harrier it is much more rufous with a distinct eye-catching wedge of white on the primary flight feathers. The head is whitish, the eye pale yellow. However the most distinctive feature is the deeply forked tail, which even when spread as in this picture is quite obvious. The red kite also looks very angular in shape with its wings being sharply pulled back after the carpal joint.
Common Buzzard. Note underwing pattern of dark coverts and generally light but barred flight feathers. Head and chest dark brown, wings broad and pinching into tail. Tips of primary feathers black.
Marsh Harrier (male). Note extensive black on primary feathers, clean underwing, long grey tail and yellow eye. Top side of wing blue- grey with light brown coverts.
Marsh Harrier (female). Overall dark brown with varying degree of buff and cream markings on forewing and head. The long tail is very obvious on this bird as is the bright yellow feet and dark eye.
Red Kite. Here the reddish-brown plumage covering the underside can clearly be seen as can the white head and white wing patches. The long, forked tail is diagnostic at long distance as is the angular sweep of the wings.
A couple of things to bear in mind!
In late summer you may see young marsh harriers on the wing. These are very dark brown birds with a ginger crown. Here we have two youngsters harassing their mother for food.
Annual moult can cause problems. Here a common buzzard is shedding flight and tail feathers (these are moulted in sequence throughout the summer at different rates in each sex – P5 is growing afresh in this bird. The photo was taken in early September which would indicate this is a male). New feathers can give a strange appearance. In this example because the old feathers are worn there is a false impression of wing and tail proportions. The barred patterning of the underwing and tail are still quite clear.