When is a buzzard not a buzzard?

…when it's a marsh harrier.

Yesterday, I took my fancy new camera lens for a trial run at Burton Marshes and the RSPB reserve at Burton Mere on my native Wirral Peninsula. I was very pleased with the results.

Sitting in one of the hides on the reserve, I was acutely aware that the woman next to me seemed to think I was some sort of ornithological expert. It must have been the fancy lens that lent me the misleading aura. Fortunately, my expertise was never put to the test as there were plenty of genuine experts in the hide, who kept calling out what to look for and where.

Which is how we came to spend half an hour watching a female marsh harrier—albeit from a very long way away—flying back and forth on the hunt:

Marsh harrier
A female marsh harrier hunting over the Dee Marshes.

As I watched this magnificent creature through my binoculars, something dawned on me: I recognised this bird. I'd seen it—or another marsh harrier just like it—a few weeks earlier. I'd watched it hunting alongside a peregrine falcon, and had stupidly assumed it to be a buzzard! It was a good job the woman sitting next to me didn't know about my ornithological howler: it would have totally shattered her disillusions of my grandeur.

In my defence, my ‘buzzard’ had also been a long way off when I'd watched it, and I had noticed at the time that it had an unusual head-colour for a buzzard. I'd put this down to the fact that buzzards, as a species, tend to have variable markings. But that's no excuse. It never entered my head that the bird was anything other than a buzzard—even though I was watching it fly above a marsh: the eponymous habitat of the marsh harrier. The clue's in the name.

That's all part of the fun of bird-watching, though: learning from your mistakes. I'm pretty sure I won't commit such a howler again. Well, not with a marsh harrier, at least.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletter

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