Experts have unveiled their latest weapon in a bid to shed light on the secret life of the elusive Honey Buzzard: a camcorder. The tree-mounted camcorder was moved between carefully selected sites by Forestry Commission Wales to track the movements and habits of the rare bird of prey. Along with Honey Buzzard expert Steve Roberts, Forestry Commission Wales has been studying the birds for a number of years with the help of a static nest camera to record their annual visits to the forests of South Wales. The camera provided important information on the birds' breeding habits, but proved to be less successful over the past few seasons as the birds used other nest sites to breed.
Forestry Commission Wales Conservation and Heritage Manager Rosalind Codd said, "Birds can change nest locations each breeding season and a camcorder is useful for recording previously ringed birds, for example, as it can be moved between nests. The mobile nest camera project proved very successful in its first year, with a number of active nests found and filmed in detail by Steve. Footage such as hunting patterns, nest building, feeding behaviour, growth and activity of chicks was recorded, and we were able to begin identifying individual birds in each nest."
Honey Buzzard, Mozambique (Photo: Rudi Debruyne)
Honey Buzzards build their nests on branches of large trees and are usually found in areas where there are big mature forests, such as those in South Wales; but the exact location of their nests is closely guarded because of the threat from egg collectors. The birds arrive from their wintering grounds in equatorial Africa in mid-May and the adults fly non-stop back to Africa in September. Migrating birds have been tracked using satellite transmitters funded by Forestry Commission Scotland, which also demonstrated the vulnerability of young birds on their first migrations.
The Honey Buzzard population is stable through most of Europe but it is a rare breeder in the UK. The size of the Welsh population is uncertain, partly because of the bird's inconspicuous nature. Forestry Commission Wales has also been funding the ringing of a number of chicks, which could be identified by the camcorder to establish their age and determine the range that birds are prepared to travel to find a mate and establish new nest sites. Rosalind said, "We are very privileged to have these rare birds breeding in South Wales and it's great to be involved in such an important project. The results will prove invaluable in helping to understand these secretive birds and to gain a better idea of their habitat requirements. This will help us to make informed management decisions to enhance such valuable habitats for the future."
The Honey Buzzard is best identified by its long head shape and distinctive two or three bars on its tail. It is usually silent, but can make whistling noises near its nest and is sometimes confused with the Common Buzzard. Honey Buzzards feed mainly on the nests, larvae, pupae and adults of wasps, bees, bumblebees and hornets. The birds follow flying insects to the nest and dig as deep as 40cm with their feet to reach their prey. It has small, dense, scale-like feathers on the front of its face to help prevent it being stung by its prey, and powerful feet with thick scales and slightly curved claws of almost equal size for digging and walking, as well as slit-like nostrils to reduce soil blockage while digging. When main prey is scarce, they will eat other insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, nestlings and eggs of birds, worms, fruit and berries. Its peculiar diet is also the reason behind its alternative name of "bee hawk".
The data from this year's breeding season will now be collated and Steve will begin to build a data set for the birds breeding in South Wales. Rosalind added, "We hope the project will continue in future years and, in time, we will get a much better grasp of this elusive bird's ecology and behaviour."
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