On the 11th of January 1998, I bumped into my first ever Honey Buzzard. I was very excited and made lots of notes and even a quick sketch (this was long before everyone owned a camera). This sighting was so special that I had to fill in a long form and send it to the official SA Rarities Committee – a panel of people who decide if rare birds were correctly identified. Luckily they agreed with my ID!
Back then I would never have guessed that my friend Caroline would dig up that same form twenty years later. She did some cool research on Honey Buzzards for her university degree. Caroline’s data showed that Honey Buzzards have become a lot more common in SA. Back when I saw mine, there were only 2-3 records each summer. Now people see more than 300 every season. Honey Buzzards are even regular visitors to leafy garden in some suburbs. Crazy!
But hang on! Honey Buzzards breed in the large, cool forests of Europe and then migrate to Africa. But on their breeding grounds they are declining in numbers. So why are we seeing more in SA. Maybe there are just more birders on the lookout? No. Actually it seems that their habitat in East Africa has been degraded, which forced them south. They had to find a new area to spend their “holidays”.
But all the way from Scandinavia and Siberia to South Africa is a long way for a raptor to migrate – twice a year. And there are plenty of dangers along their route. So much so that 50-70% of young ones don’t make the journey. One of their survival strategies is to try and avoid flying over the dangerous ocean where they can’t land. You have to cross ocean to get from Europe to Africa though. But at a few special places on our planet the gap is very small. And the Honey Buzzards know these secret spots.
So for a week or two every year, thousands of Honey Buzzards funnel through these natural “bottlenecks”. One such place is Gibraltar, where Spain and Morocco are only 14 km apart. The same for Eilat in Israel, where more than 200,000 Honey Buzzards have been counted in a single day! Sadly, these traditional routes make Honey Buzzards an easy target for illegal hunting.
Despite is name this weird raptor is not a buzzard at all. And its scientific name, Pernis apivorus, which means “bee-eating raptor” is only partly correct. As is often the case, the Afrikaans name is the best: Wespedief, meaning “wasp thief”. Weirdly, this bird’s diet consists mainly of wasps and their larvae. One of their tricks is to sit patiently in the trees and watch wasps flying past. By following them they find the wasps’ nests. Or they walk about on the ground, digging out underground insets with their claws.
But I’ll bet you’re thinking that eating wasps sounds like a dangerous game! Indeed! I’ve always wondered why Honey Buzzards aren’t covered in stings. I found my answer one day when I had to skin a dead Honey Buzzard for a museum’s collection. Firstly, the scales on the legs and feet are very hard, which provides some protection – almost like boots. Secondly, the nostrils are tiny splits, so wasps cannot get in there. Imagine a wasp in your nose – I would freak out! And thirdly, the feathers on their faces are unusually small and dense – almost like armour. These feathers also protect them on the microscopic level, and researchers have even discovered a strange powder on them, that might be chemical deterrent.
Raptors are tough to ID – no argument there. And Honey Buzzards especially. Young ones look completely different, and adults vary from almost white to almost black. If you look closely you can tell the male and female apart by the number of bands on their wings. To make things more interesting, the rare Crested Honey Buzzard was recently recorded for the first time in our region. Now there’s an ID challenge for you!
It doesn’t matter how many Honey Buzzards I’ve seen, every sighting is a highlight. And there is still so much more that we could talk about. At one stage I got hold of a DVD about the strange breeding behaviour of Honey Buzzards. But before I could watch it, it was stolen – while still in the DVD player, and along with my TV! Hopefully the thief could at least learn a little something about these extraordinary raptors.