In the Garden Route, we have become all too familiar with the buzzard on the telephone pole, on the tree in our back garden or flying over town. The forest buzzard (Buteotrizonatus) is indeed a common sight in most areas of the Garden Route, and especially in George. However, these buzzards are, in fact, quite hard to find elsewhere in the country. So what makes them so special?
Forest buzzards are endemic to South Africa (found nowhere else in the world). They prefer to live in or along the edge of forests, but they have also taken to living in plantations and even in well-wooded suburbs. It is interesting to note that they have been recorded as far north as the Soutpansberg near Thohoyandou, but have never been recorded in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe, even though the habitat up there is also perfectly suitable.
What is even more interesting is that it would seem that all the forest buzzards that have been seen east of the Garden Route have only ever beenviewed there between April and September. So they are winter, non-breeding visitors to the north-eastern parts of their distribution range. In the Garden Route we see them throughout the year. This means that it is quite possible that forest buzzards only breed in the Western Cape (and in the Tsitsikamma Forest); in other words,that the forest buzzard is a near breeding endemic to the Western Cape! The Garden Route is certainly their prime breeding area; and here they even build their nests in some of our towns and cities (with a known nesting site inside the grounds of Outeniqua High School).
Notes on identification
Even though they are close relatives, the common buzzard (Buteobuteo), is a non-breeding summer visitor to the area. In summer it can easily beconfusedwith the forest buzzard. Forest buzzards, are however, much lighter coloured birds. The adult birds are brown with a white bar across the chest and the wings are whiter underneaththan that of the common buzzard. The immature forest buzzard has a chest that is just about completely white, and so are the feathers underneath its wings.
Common buzzards are generally brown all over, and their wings are browner underneaththan that of the forest buzzard. However, immature common buzzards are much whiter and look more like adult forest buzzards. This is where habitat becomes important. In the summer months the forest buzzards tend to live in the forest and forest edges (in winter they sometimes move out into more open areas), while the common buzzards preferto live in the open countryside, on farmland and along roads where they hunt from the telephone poles and fence posts.
Next time you see a buzzard in the Garden Route, look carefully, it is most likely a forest buzzard, a bird that should be our mascot for the Garden Route!
Roberts Bird Guide, by Hugh Chittenden, Greg Davies and Ingrid Weiersbye
South African Bird Atlas Website: http://sabap2.birdmap.africa/