This morning I saw a buzzard drifting across the blue sky above my home in West Cork and marvelled at how gracefully and effortlessly it was carried on the upper air, while here on earth, the blackbird foraging in the vegetable patch had to hop-hop-hop as he foraged and the coal tits and blue tits had to peck-peck-peck tree trunks for insects, writes.
The buzzard belonged in another dimension, planing on strata of the invisible stuff all around us. How wonderful!
How wonderful for shearwaters and albatrosses skimming the wave tops on 1,000-mile journeys, the fulmar floating on wings held rigid as those of aircraft, the swallows and swifts, ascending and descending the air, without a wingbeat. We, earthbound creatures, have to labour to achieve motion, expend half our joules of energy just getting from A to B in an environment constrained by the need of energy, personal or mechanical. These creatures drift of on the wing.
High in the thermals, the buzzard moves across the sky, one side of my view to the other at a leisurely pace, not committing a single wingbeat. It looks down at the world. It lives in a space untrammeled by traffic, unobfuscated by noise, undiscommoded by chewing gum or dog-pooh on the pavement, or exhaust fumes filling its lungs. Oh, for the wings of a bird, as the man said!
Actually, it was Psalm 55:6 that said it: “O for the wings of a dove, for then would I fly away and be at rest...” Mendelssohn re-phrased it in a hymn in 1844, in one versions amongst many.
Despite there hardly being a leaf moving in the garden, the buzzard traversed the sky apparently without the need to propel itself. It was carried, it didn’t have to move a muscle. The wind carried this very large bird as gracefully as a feather of the powder-down our garden heron plucks from deep in its breast to use in grooming.
The heron likes the recent extraordinary climate so much that he goes fishing in the bay, and comes to us soliciting sprat only every second or third day; he doesn’t eat many. Perhaps instinct tell him that he should patronise us, for fear we forget who he is and turn him away as we might a stranger heron perching on the clothes line.
Sometimes, when he comes, his legs are garlanded with bright, vivid-green, sea-lettuce garters. It appears that, like myself, he is not adverse to standing in our tepid inshore sea, although he doesn’t venture to submerge himself, as I do. The water, in hot spots, is almost as warm as the Caribbean. Like myself, he doesn’t go sea bathing in winter; he’s a timorous heron and would be better acclimatised to the Mediterranean.
With knees trailing the green weed, he looks very impressive although his glorious red beak has dulled to grey, his veil of breast feathers has thinned, and he no longer wears the nine-inch long, glossy pigtails of his courting season earlier in the year.
These days, I often receive reports of “eagles” in our area: they are buzzards, I’m afraid. I’m “afraid” only because it may disappoint country neighbours to learn they haven’t seen that apex of raptorial majesty, a golden eagle, and have to reconcile the fact that the bird they sighted was ‘only’ a buzzard. But a buzzard Buteo buteo is a highly impressive creature, with a wingspan of almost 60 cm. or 2 ft. Buzzards are not yet common throughout Ireland but are becoming so.
Perhaps, we’ll also soon have red kites, common in the UK, and the skies will begin to be an aviary of cruising raptors, as in Andalucía or Estremadura in Spain. It’s hard not to lean forward over the steering wheel and look up at the skies when driving on the motorways. Happily, they’re wide and, out of the cities, often quite empty.
The powder down herons take from deep in their breasts is oily, and the oil, transferred to the beak, is used to waterproof, clean and remove parasites from the feathers. Herons, along with bitterns and parrots, do not have oil-emitting preen glands. Blackbirds and thrushes access preening oil by swivelling their heads over their shoulders to reach these glands, located over the tail. When our heron cools himself in the garden pond, his breast leaves a light oil skim on the surface. I’d almost join him in the pond myself. The sky continues Australia blue every day, no rain and our garden is cracking into crevasses. Any day now, we’ll be able to see Alice!