Sunday, December 7, 2014

Honey Buzzards

The European honey buzzard is known in Maltese as kuċċarda. It is a migratory raptor seen in over Malta in spring and autumn as it soars on its broad wings by using the hot air currents, known as thermals to sustain an effortless flight that takes it from one continent to another.

Three species of honey buzzard exist. The crested honey buzzard (also known as Oriental honey buzzard) breeds in Asia from central Siberia east to Japan and winters in South East Asia. The barred honey buzzard is resident in lowland and montane forests in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Our honey buzzard is found breeding in forests from south west Europe north to Scandinavia and east into Russia. All populations are fully migratory and spend the winter in tropical Africa. Honey buzzards use the earth’s magnetic field as  well as visual memory to find their way from their breeding areas to their wintering grounds and vice versa. They avoid flying over large tracts of water as these do not allow the formation of thermals.

Honey buzzards feed mostly on the larvae and nests of wasps and hornets. They also prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds. Opening up a wasps’ nest and tearing it apart to get at the larvae can be a painful affair but it is believed that honey buzzards have a chemical deterrent in their feathers which stops wasps from attacking them.

Broad winged raptors chose migratory routes that do not require large sea crossings. Hundreds of thousands of birds of prey from continental Europe can be seen at the Straits of Gibraltar and over the Straits of Bosporus in Istanbul as they migrate across the narrow straits.

Smaller numbers of raptors cross between Europe and Africa via the central Mediterranean from Sicily to Tunisia. Many of these birds pass over the Maltese Islands to where they find more thermals that allow them to gain height and continue their journey.  

Watching migrating honey buzzards in the Maltese islands can be an unforgettable experience. In autumn their migration usually reaches a peak during the third or fourth week of September and on good days up to five hundred honey buzzards together with other birds of prey can be counted over Buskett Gardens. To add to the spectacle, when the air starts to cool and the hot air currents disappear, birds that arrive late in the afternoon fly down to land in the trees where they then spend the night. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 18 September 2014.

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