BTO Bird ID – Summer Buzzards: Common Buzzard and Honey-buzzard


This guide is going to tackle a pair
of raptors that many bird watchers and surveyors worry about being able to separate:
Buzzard and Honey-buzzard. Buzzard is a very common and familiar
medium sized raptor found across Britain, including Ireland. Familiarity with its behaviour as well as its
plumages will hugely help in identifying individual Honey-buzzards when encountered. Buzzard is sedentary in the UK, found
all year round in a variety of habitats from farmland and woodland, through to
mountainous regions. Its overall impression is one of stockiness almost
dumpy, whether seen in flight or perched. Buzzards can almost appear lazy at times,
spending much time perched in trees or, habitually, on fence posts and telegraph poles. They will even perch and forage for insects and
worms on the ground, especially in winter and some favoured fields can attract large numbers
of individuals all sat around on the ground looking vaguely as if they don’t know what
to do next. Within their extensive world range, Common Buzzards
are highly variable in plumage but luckily in the UK, the vast majority are a rich brown
colour with darker markings and paler undersides. In these birds, a brown throat and paler necklace
separating the throat from the belly is obvious and this is especially obvious on perched birds. In flight, again, Buzzards usually appear stocky
with long broad wings and a relatively short tail. When soaring, the Buzzard holds its wings in
an utterly distinctive upward dihedral or angle. When gliding, the wings are more flat and
the wingbeats fairly shallow and stiff. Buzzard is adept at hovering if the wind
speed is great enough. The real key to separating Buzzard and Honey-
buzzard is in being very familiar with Buzzard. As is often the case with these kinds of ID
challenges, it is a combination of G.I.S.S. and impression that will usually help clinch the ID rather than detailed examination of particular
feathers or markings. Honey-buzzard is a summer visitor,
wintering in tropical Africa and is very rare as a breeding bird. There are some 50 or so pairs in the UK
but it is distributed from the north of Scotland to the south coast of England
with an easterly bias. Birds arrive from mid-May and depart again
from mid-August, with a peak in September. Away from a few well known breeding locations,
Honey-buzzard is most likely to be encountered during migration, especially along the east, as in
some years, birds from Nor thern Europe and Scandinavia can arrive in some numbers on their way south. Honey-buzzard is almost always encountered in flight
and rarely perches in the open. It is usually found in areas of extensive woodland
but can be found anywhere on migration. Plumage is highly variable with male, female,
juvenile, adult and light-phase, dark-phase differences adding to the complication but there
are some constant features that can help us. The overall impression in flight is of
a Buzzard-sized raptor but one that is more lithe with long wings, a narrower
body and proportionally longer tail. One of the most obvious features on all
but the most distant bird, is the small head and neck, seemingly out of proportion
to the rest of the bird. The head can almost appear cuckoo-like or
pigeon-like. The tail in any plumage has a broad, dark
band at or near the tip and two further narrower bars well along the tail. Common Buzzard either has a plain messily barred
tail or more usually has a terminal dark bar missing the ones higher up the tail. Wing beats are slow, purposeful and deeper
than Buzzard seemingly using the whole wing. Again, Common Buzzard can appear lazy at times
and when soaring, Honey-buzzard wings are held characteristically flat. For brief moments, the wings may come above
the horizontal but will quickly return to flat again. If you are in doubt about the ID of a
soaring bird, watch for as long as possible to spot this key difference. Honey-buzzards also do not hover. The only other similarly sized raptor that may
cause momentary confusion is female Goshawk. However, a combination of stocky body,
very long tail and short rounded wings combined with characteristic Sparrowhawk-like
powerful, fast wing beats, followed by glides should separate this species from the Buzzards. Although rare in the UK, Honey-buzzard is actually
one of the most numerous raptors in the world although always elusive on the breeding grounds. While surveyors or casual birdwatchers are likely to
happen upon an occasional Honey-buzzard in the UK, in order to really build experience and confidence
in ID-ing this species, visits to the migration hotspots in Europe or the Middle East are
really needed where sometimes 100s of 1000s of these birds can be counted in a single season. We will be returning to Goshawk and Sparrowhawk in
a future guide and also looking at Buzzard/Rough-legged
Buzzard.

26 thoughts on “BTO Bird ID – Summer Buzzards: Common Buzzard and Honey-buzzard

  1. Your videos are so well done and informative. And you are absolutely right that when you familiarize yourself in the field it becomes easier to recocgnise personality as well.

  2. Collins BTO. GUIDE TO BRITISH BIRDS. IS A VERY INFORMATIVE AND WELL PRESENTED BOOK FOR BIRD IDENTIFECATION. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT.

  3. Surely if you see a "Buzzard" in the UK, you can be 99% certain that it is a Common Buzzard? Birdwatchers have a tendency to inflate what they see – always convinced it is the very similar but much rarer species they are seeing.

  4. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. True for someone like me didn't know how to separate buzzards to eagles.

  5. this was in my corridor today my mum was taking stuff from the car back into the house and it was at the front door (open) then it came into the corridor my mum got very shocked/scared and chucked something at it and it didn't even flinch luckily it moved out and my mum could shut the door also lucky it didn't fly up stairs. (I live in Scotland)

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