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Sunday, 16 November 2008

First twitchable ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD in HERTFORDSHIRE in 34 years

SATURDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2008

REED VILLAGE, 2 miles south of ROYSTON

Just after 1300 hours, BirdGuides took an email informing them of a ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD and other raptors present just north of Reed village. I immediately contacted Mike Ilett and Barry Reed and both observers made their way there. Barry arrived within 20 minutes and soon located RED KITE and a number of Common Buzzards but no Rough-leg. I decided to take in the Sandy Waxwings first and as I was leaving the site, I received a call from Barry exclaiming that he had found an excellent candidate and was waiting to get better views. With light fading fast, I raced over to join him and Mike and just as I entered Baldock, both observers confirmed the identification.

I eventually arrived in Reed just after 1535 hours to be informed by Barry that the bird had flown over the ridge and landed out of view. I scanned the area and almost immediately located a ringtail HEN HARRIER, flying north along the ridge just NE of Therfield. It remained on view for about a minute before disappearing over a distant ridge. Two Common Buzzards were quickly located (both roosting) and as Barry and I walked further down the lane towards Hatchpen, a dark 'blob' adjacent to a fenced-off area of vegetation proved to be the ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD. It was sat to the west of the A10 at TL 355 374. I quickly got my 'scope on to it and was surprised to see that it was in very fresh juvenile-type plumage, with striking white fringes to the upperwing coverts and scapulars and with a pale head but noticeably streaked. Even in poor light, it could be seen to have a pale iris, and as it spread its wings, it revealed a large white area at the base of the tail, a dark chocolate-brown terminal band and a broad, buff tip to the tail band (typical of juveniles).

It sat in the field for about 15 minutes before taking flight. It then flew back over the narrow hedgerow, quartering low to the ground, flushing Red-legged Partridges as it went. It then landed in another field, where it sat for a few minutes before being flushed again by a Common Buzzard. As it flew nearer, I was able to get good views of its underparts. It had a paler upper breast with a strongly contrasting dark belly and as it stood on the earth, the heavily feathered tarsi were apparent. In flight, the underwing was sparsely patterned, except for a very prominent dark carpal-patch, with the upperwing characterised by the white 'spotting', an extensive area of white feathering at the bases of the primaries and dark, uniform secondaries. Just prior to dusk, it flew back north low over the field and hedgerow and could not be relocated. It had presumably flown to roost.

The fields where the Rough-leg was favouring were rich in prey, with well over 100 Red-legged Partridges in the vicinity and at least 25 Brown Hares feeding. This will presumably keep it in the area. A group of 5 Fallow Deers (including 2 stags) also appeared at dusk.

As night fell, just seven observers had connected - the finder (still unknown at present), Barry Reed, Mike Ilett, Geoff Barker, Dave Cording, Aubrey Warboys and myself. Jim Lawrence narrowly missed it by getting lost in Reed.

DIRECTIONS: Leave the A10 just north of Reed on the minor road to Barkway. After 80 yards, park sensibly and safely at the entrance to Hatchpen and walk north for up to 500 yards to view across the A10 to the sloping fields opposite.

PREVIOUS RECORDS

Rough-legged Buzzard is a very rare vagrant to Hertfordshire with just 5 birds reported since 1970 -:

In December 1974, two different birds were discovered. A bird at Kimpton Mill from 14th December until 26th January 1975 and another on the county border with Bedfordshire - on the Pegsdon Hills - from 28th December until 23rd January 1975. At this latter site, two birds hung in the air over Deacon Hill on 19th January (AJ Livett et al).

On Boxing Day 1996, one was seen at Stagenhoe (S. Banks). This was followed by another single-observer sighting on the north side of the Mimram River Valley at Digswell on 16th October 1998 (Tom Gladwin).