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First for Britain: Long-legged Buzzard, Shetland

Long=legged Buzzard, Hillwell, Shetland September 2019 (© Tom Gale)

After spending the summer of 2019 volunteering at Fair Isle Bird Observatory, I was fortunate to be able to return for a few weeks during September before I had to go back to university. During July there had been a wonderful invasion of Two-barred Crossbills, among many other highlights, so I was absolutely buzzing to return. However, whilst arriving in Lerwick on the Northlink ferry, I received a message confirming that due to the weather, I would be unable to get onto Fair Isle for at least another day. Thankfully, Paul Harvey had very kindly agreed to let me stay at his house until I was able to travel and, of course, there are worse places to be stuck than Shetland! This meant that I was able to go out exploring the area and visit some legendary birding sites in the meantime.

On the following morning (1st September), I was able to head straight to Quendale (thanks to a generous lift from Jane Outram). The week before had seen some good late August arrivals of migrants into Shetland, so I was excited to see what might be lurking around. Within a few minutes, I’d seen my first Barred Warbler of the year, which was followed by a supporting cast of Wood Warbler, Whinchat and a few Willow Warblers. It was also nice to be able to visit a site that I’d seen so many times associated with mega-rare bird sightings. After a few hours exploring, I decided to head back along the road towards Dunrossness.

After passing through Hillwell, I suddenly heard some Ravens making a commotion above my head. I looked up and realised they were mobbing a raptor of some sort. My instant gut reaction was that it was a buzzard species, but it was a very odd bird - it was strikingly pale and seemed to be in a heavy state of moult. Due to the light, I really couldn’t get much on it, so I quickly went for my camera to record as much of the bird as possible. Thankfully, I was able to get some shots before it was then driven further away by the Ravens. At this point, I switched to videoing it as it then headed over the Loch of Spiggie before disappearing out of sight. This all happened within about a minute or so, but based on the features I’d seen (mainly through my camera) and the way the bird was flying on V wings, it appeared it was most likely a Common Buzzard - in itself, this would have been a good record for Shetland so I was quite excited by this.

However, looking through my photos on the back of my camera subsequently confused me. The bird was very strange! I couldn’t make out much detail on the upperparts, but the underparts appeared off-white with dark blotches around the flanks and carpals. Could this be an aberrant bird or perhaps a bird from eastern populations? This seemed a reasonable suggestion and the heavy state of moult made the bird look even more confusing. I didn’t know an awful lot about moult in buzzards, but I’d never noted one looking like this. At the time, I thought that structurally the bird seemed ok for Common Buzzard, looking at my photos.

The following day, I was able to get the Good Shepherd to Fair Isle. As it happened, a Honey Buzzard had been found flying over the isle by Nick Riddiford several hours after I’d seen the bird over Hillwell, with Richard Cope managing to get some record shots. Comparing our photos, we were surprised to find we had, in fact, seen the same bird as the state of moult and plumage matched perfectly. This was confusing from both ends - the impression gained by both Nick and Richard was of a long-necked and long-tailed bird, more fitting to the structure of a Honey Buzzard and yet my photos clearly revealed a much more Common Buzzard-like bird. Over the few days, we went back over the images together and asked a couple of others for their opinions, trying to decide what it was. This involved googling images of various other species (including some rather outrageous candidates), but none of these seemed to click at the time and the consensus we reached was that it was a Common Buzzard, albeit an odd one. This broke one of the golden rules of birding (especially when you’re somewhere like Shetland) - never assume anything. In retrospect, our contrasting

impressions of the bird should have raised the alarm bells! Despite this, I went back to the photos a couple of times over the following weeks and could not confidently come up with a more plausible alternative. After 4 weeks of excitement on Fair Isle, followed by a sudden return to university work, the bird slowly worked its way to the back of my mind over the following months.

“Whilst I have seen lots of different plumage variations of Common Buzzard in South West England, this bird was unlike the typical variation I am used to, possibly due to the extent of moult and potentially some aberration in plumage. In some photos, the tail also appears quite long when closed. Certainly an interesting bird in my opinion – not sure what the Common Buzzards that turn up on Shetland usually look like!” - looking back at this extract of my description is both frustrating and rather satisfying at the same time. Clearly, something wasn’t right!

During this time, it seems it was also bouncing around the records committee. Fast forward to 2021 and I received an email from David Parnaby with the subject line “first for Britain”, which seemed intriguing… I opened the email and instantly got a thump of adrenaline (I imagine this isn’t usually the way it happens in rare bird finder’s accounts!). Attached was a pdf from Dave Cooper, titled “Long-legged Buzzard Hillwell Fair Isle”. Picking up my jaw from the bowl of sweet potato curry on my lap, I read through the pdf, which explained how this bird was a perfect candidate for a second calendar year Long-legged Buzzard! The quality of Dave’s notes was outstanding and made everything suddenly click into place. The bird’s moult and “strange” plumage features could now be explained, and the different impression Nick and Richard had gained of the bird compared to me now made much more sense. This was clearly the realisation that we had missed at the time. I’ve created a quick summary of the bird’s key identification features below, using Dave’s notes, Forsman (2016) and various Birding World articles as references (see end).

The bird can be aged as a second calendar year due to the retained juvenile wing feathers, which appear more faded due to wear. Retained juvenile primaries create a white flash on the upper wing, contrasting with darker renewed feathers. This is the age class most often seen as vagrants in N Europe. Pale underwing coverts contrast with dark carpal patches. The head is strikingly pale, along with much of the upper breast, which contrast with darker reddish-brown patches on the thighs and lower body - pale morphs are the most distinctive form. Upperparts (majority of detail can only be obtained from the video) are generally sandy brown, making the bird’s pale head and tail stand out. The tail has been moulted to adult type and is diagnostic, with uniform white inner half and orange coloured outer half. The structure of the bird is strongly indicative of the eastern rufinus form (as opposed to Atlas Long-legged, B. r. cirtensis), due to the especially long winged and long necked appearance (evident in videograbs, which highlights eagle-like structure). On close inspection, the bill is quite heavy and has a noticeably long, hooked tip and deep base.

Comments from Dick Forsman

"This is a spot on classic bird of the pale form, which is the easiest colour morph to identify. And the age is just right: most of the birds we see here in N Europe as stragglers are 2nd cy as well, which is the age-class that moves around before the birds reach maturity and settle to breed.

Dave Cooper has already done a great job and there is not much I need to add. The tail is diagnostic, however, as no other buzzard shows this kind of uniform tail with white inner part and an orange coloured outer half (this means that the tail has already been moulted into adult-type). The big white primary flash of the upperwing is another important feature of young LLB (to be lost once moult is completed), while the entire underparts are just a textbook case of a young LLB of the light form. The primary and secondary moult is also interesting, and typical, as juvenile Common and Steppe Buzzards are usually clearly more advanced at this time in Sep.

Often people send me images of presumed LLBs, with a plumage quite similar to this, but in which the shape and proportions are not convincing, but this bird has it all. The long and rather narrow wings and the stretched neck are again just perfect for B.rufinus and I think you can by structure alone rule out the N African cirtensis, which is more like a Common Buzzard in this respect."

This isn’t how I’ve always dreamed finding a first for Britain would go (pending acceptance, of course). As I’m writing this, I’m still not sure that it’s all completely sunk in. In many ways, I am frustrated that we missed the final penny-drop moment at the time, especially as now whenever I look back at my images of the bird, it doesn’t look anything like a Common Buzzard to me anymore. However, I do feel it’s easy to be harsh on yourself in these situations and prefer the take of treating events like these as learning experiences. Could there be a more prime example to illustrate the importance of submitting records to local committees? I’m glad that I was able to document the bird as well as I could, given how quickly it went through. It’s also given me a good excuse to learn more about raptor identification - something I feel we’re a bit deprived of in the UK. I hope that this sighting will provide an example for others of what to look out for - given records of Long-legged Buzzard in Northern and Central Europe are increasing, I imagine there could be more to come!

 

Tom Gale
25 January 2021

 

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