Buzzard’s and bunny hunting

I took the dog for a walk through the low-lying fields along the edge of the bog.

Luckily he ignores sheep, otherwise I would have had to pick a different route. But his restraint doesn’t extend to rabbits and he used up a lot of energy in fruitless pursuit of bobbing white scuts.

This was interesting because in all the years I have been walking these fields I’ve never seen rabbits in them before. Irish rabbits are an introduced species from Iberia and North Africa. Rabbits differ from hares in that they live in burrows and what makes my sighting unusual is that low-lying fields fringing a bog are not an ideal habitat for them. The water table is high and there is a continual threat that their burrows will be flooded.

But good grass growth and suitable weather has resulted in very successful breeding this year and the increase in population has forced some of them out into second-choice habitat. There’s plenty of food for them here but one morning, after a very wet night, I found two of them, totally saturated, shivering in my garden. They were flood refugees.

Later in our walk I heard a strange, cat-like sound — a sound I’ve recently learned to recognise. I looked up and there were three buzzards circling in the air, their wings outstretched and the ends of their primary feathers spread like fingers.

This was almost certainly a family group --- a mated pair and their full-grown chick which had hatched earlier this year. Young birds of prey tend to stay with their parents for a lot longer than the young of other birds because they have to learn the difficult art of hunting.

The buzzards are also newcomers to these fields, which means that the fields are developing a whole new ecology — because it was the arrival of the rabbits that had attracted these large birds of prey. The reason that buzzards have spread so rapidly and successfully over the country in the past couple of decades is that they’re extremely versatile in their hunting and foraging. They will eat carrion, deliberately searching out animals killed on the road, and they will hop across freshly ploughed fields competing with rooks and gulls for earthworms and leather jackets. But their real specialisation is hunting small mammals and their prey of choice is the rabbit.

They normally soar at a height of around 100 metres and then plummet down on any rabbit caught out in the open during daylight hours. They have a different technique for hunting grey squirrels, which they normally target when the squirrels come down from the trees to forage on the ground. Then they launch their attack from a motionless perch in a tall tree.

But the young buzzard I was watching was getting a master class in rabbit hunting.


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