Honey Buzzard 620

Honey buzzard 620 is a juvenile that was ringed and satellite tagged by Roy Dennis with assistance from Ian Perks and Fraser Cormack at a regular nest site near Forres in West Moray on 11th August. It weighed 1031g with a wing length of 291 mm and tail of 146 mm. It is thought to be female.

We have previously tagged 11 juveniles and one adult honey buzzard, including two juveniles in Sussex between 2001 and 2011. Nine definitely reached Africa on autumn migration, and two were lost at sea after heading out into the Atlantic Ocean because of easterly winds. We lost contact with one in Northumberland. The wintering birds were recorded in Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Cameroon and Gabon. These earlier radios relied on batteries, before solar charging, so the only return data was an adult seen with a transmitter in Moray in the breeding season and one of the English ones was killed on a railway line four years after ringing.

The Ornitela GSM transmitter will allow us to collected very high quality migration data, and then to follow the young female on her African wintering grounds. There is also potential for us to track her return migration back to Scotland and to record how a young honey buzzard joins the breeding population, for the first time.

Traversing the Sahara

Having negotiated two long sea crossings, including a 28 hour flight across the Mediterranean from the south of France to Algeria, the next challenge for the young honey buzzard on her first migration south from Scotland, was to cross the Sahara. This is one of the hazardous elements of the journey and previous satellite tracking studies have shown that many young raptors perish as they attempt to cross the vast and unforgiving terrain.

The satellite tag, which has enabled us to follow her journey south in such precise detail, logs the bird’s location as regularly as once every minute, and then transmits the data at pre-determined intervals when within range of a mobile phone mast. This meant that as she headed across the Sahara – where mobile phone coverage is patchy at best – it was likely we would have to wait some time before receiving an update on her progress. That long-awaited update finally arrived over the weekend, and we were delighted to see that she had reached the River Niger in Mali, having flown 2678 km across the Sahara in 11 days.

In our last update we reported that the young bird had reached the northern edge of the Sahara on 29th September. She set-out across the desert the next morning and flew 205 km south-east to the Atlas Saharien Mountains, where she roosted at an altitude of 1675 metres.

The honey buzzard spent the night of 30th September roosting at an altitude of 1675 metres.

The next morning, 1st October, she resumed her journey south 1.5 hours after sunrise, at 07:30 GMT. Unlike the previous day she maintained a south-westerly heading all day, reaching a maximum altitude of 1766 metres (above ground level) as she flew across the desert during the afternoon. She eventually settled to roost on the ground at 17:30, having flown exactly 300 km during ten hours of non-stop-flight.

Whilst her course had been directly south-west on 1st October, it was very different the next day. She resumed her journey at 07:45, initially on the same south-westerly heading as the previous day. However at 09:40 she turned and flew 24 km north-west in 2.5 hours, before turning 180 degrees at 12:07 and then flying back in the opposite direction. There is no way of knowing what caused this sudden change of course, but perhaps she encountered other migrating honey buzzards, and joined them? Whatever the case, she maintained the south-easterly heading for the rest of the day before stopping to roost at 17:00. She had flown 183 km during the day, but thanks to two changes of direction, had actually only travelled 92 km south-east from her position overnight.

The honey buzzard flew 182 km on 2nd October, but actually only covered 92 km due to two changes of direction

On the morning of 3rd October, she left her roost site on the desert floor at 08:30 and flew 124 km south-west. At 14:00 she was circling over the remote village of Zaouiet Debagh and at that point changed course to the south-east, flying a further 56 km before stopping to roost at 17:00.

The honey buzzard made a later start the next day, remaining at the roost site until 09:35. When she did resume her journey it was on the same south-easterly heading as the previous evening. By 16:00 she had travelled 174km, and at that point she turned to an easterly course, and continued onwards for another 71km. She eventually settled to roost at 17:30, having flown 245 km during the course of the day, reaching a maximum altitude of 1952 metres during the afternoon.

Unlike the previous two days, the young honey buzzard maintained the same SSE heading throughout the day on 5th October, leaving her roost site at 08:45 and flying 269 km in just under nine hours. That night she roosted on a rocky hillside above what appeared to be an ephemeral river bed.

The honey buzzard roosted on a rocky hillside on 5th October

The next morning she landed beside the river bed for approximately 15 minutes, suggesting it may have contained some water. She then resumed her migration at 08:45.

Conditions must have been favourable for migration because she made excellent progress during the course of the day, flying 404 km on a south-westerly heading. The thermal updrafts were obviously very strong because during the afternoon she was circling up to more than 3000 metres on occasion. In fact as she passed over a mountainous region, she reached a maximum altitude of 3133 metres above ground level.

The honey buzzard flew at very high altitude over mountains during the afternoon of 6th October.
The honey buzzard’s flight from 30th September to 5th October, with overnight roosts shown by the white arrows

She left her roost site at 07:30 on 7th October and again flew strongly south-west, crossing the border into Mali at 12:02, and flying at an average speed of 54 km/h. She maintained the same heading all day, flying at altitudes of over 2000 metres, and eventually settled to roost on the desert floor just before 17:30 having flown 503 km in 11 hours of non-stop migration.

After two very good days of migration, conditions evidently became more difficult on 8th October. She left her roost site at 08:30 and initially flew 54 km south-west. However, she then changed course by 90 degrees, switching to a south-easterly heading at 11:30. She subsequently travelled a further 70 km before stopping much earlier than usual at 15:20. She had flown 124 km at an average speed of 18 km/h, but due to the change of direction, had actually only covered 87 km south from her overnight roost.

It appears from the Google Earth imagery that she may have roosted in a vegetated area – suggesting it may have been possible to find food.

After flying 503 km on 7th October, the honey buzzard managed just 124 km the next day and due to the nature of her flight, actually only covered 58 km south

The suspicion that she may have been able to feed around the roost site was given further credence by the fact that she left much later than usual the next morning, not setting off until 10:10. When she did resume her journey the honey buzzard flew WSW for 169 km before turning to a southerly heading at 16:22. She continued flying until 17:30, covering a further 49km, and thus a total of 169 km during the course of the day.

On the morning of 10th October she left her roost at 09:50, initially flying due south, and then turning to the south-west at 11:00. At 14:35 she was approaching the north shore of the vast River Niger and then, twenty minutes later, was perched on the ground nearby. She remained in the local area for the rest of the day.

After 11 days and 2678 km, she had successfully crossed the Sahara. Her daily distances on each day of the Saharan crossing are shown in the table below.

DateDistance flown (km)
30-Sep205
01-Oct300
02-Oct183
03-Oct180
04-Oct245
05-Oct269
06-Oct404
07-Oct503
08-Oct124
09-Oct169
10-Oct96

Yesterday the young honey buzzard flew across the River Niger just after 09:30 and then spent all morning perched close to the south bank of the river. After such a long and arduous crossing of the Sahara she had evidently decided to take a well-earned break.

The honey buzzard remained around the River Niger during the afternoon of 10th October and then all day on 11th.

Having successfully crossed the desert, it will be fascinating to see where the young honey buzzard goes next. It is now a month since she left her nest site in Moray and she has made excellent progress so far. Will she continues south towards Burkina Faso and Ghana, or south-west towards Guinea? We’ll have another update soon.

Flight between 6th and 11th October
The honey buzzard has flown 2678 km across the Sahara in 11 days
The honey buzzard has travelled to southern Mali in a month since leaving its nest site in Moray on 11th September

Amazing flight across the Mediterranean

Wow. In our last update we reported that the juvenile honey buzzard had reached the Massif Central region of southern France, having got back on track after its initial flight east across the North Sea from Scotland to Denmark. We suspected it would continue on a south-westerly heading into Spain and then onwards towards the Strait of Gibraltar, where it would require only short sea crossing to North Africa. That’s exactly what an experienced adult would do, but previous satellite tracking studies have shown that the routes used by juveniles can be much more variable. And so it has proved in this case. The latest satellite tracking data shows the juvenile female has made an incredible 1001 km crossing of the Mediterranean from the south of France to Algeria.

In our previous update rain had halted her progress through France and she spent two days beside the Allier River near Clermont-Ferrand. The weather improved on afternoon of 27th and she resumed her journey south at 12:35, flying an impressive 254 km almost due south in just over four hours, to a wooded area 15 km west of Montpellier.

It seemed that the young honey buzzard was now keen to make up for lost time and she resumed her journey much earlier than usual, at 08:00 the next morning. Forty minutes later she reached the Mediterranean coast, but rather than follow the coastline south-west, as we expected her to do, a strong north-westerly wind of 27 km/h resulted in her heading out to sea.

The wind strengthened and turned more north-easterly as she headed south and, at 13:00, she was flying south over Menorca, having flown 393 km across the sea at a very fast average speed of 87 km/h, at altitudes of between 300 and 750 metres.

The young honey buzzard flew at speeds of up to 87 km/h as she set-off across the the Mediterranean from Montperllier

She did not make landfall in Menorca, and instead continued south-west with the wind now 43 km/h from the north-east. She flew 183 km south-west over the next 2.5 hours at an average speed of 73 km/h and a maximum altitude of 1068 metres.

The wind eventually dropped and turned to the east as the afternoon progressed, and this was reflected in the bird’s flight path. Rather than continuing south towards the Algeria coast, she drifted further and further to the west, flying parallel with the North African coast by evening, but still over 100 km out to sea.

By 20:30 her flight speed had dropped to 23 km/h and she was flying due west, having now flown 746 km across the Mediterranean in 12 hours of continuous flight.

As the wind dropped and turned more easterly the honey buzzard drifted further west, and may have landed on a boat for a short period during the night

She maintained the same westerly heading as darkness fell, and then almost certainly rested on a boat because she only flew 11 km in two hours between 00:32 and 02:33. By 06:32 she had flown 141 km in ten hours overnight.

As dawn broke she made a very definite turn to the south, and then south-east. Despite the fact she was now flying into a slight headwind, she maintained a definite course towards the Algerian coast, flying 115 km in just over six hours at altitudes of between 50 and 200 metres and eventually made landfall at 12:50. By the time reached the Algerian coast between Ouled Boughalem and Tenes, she had flown 1001 km over the sea in a little over 28 hours, a remarkable flight for a young bird on her first migration south.

She changed course at first light on 28th and eventually made landfall in Algeria
She flew 1001 km across the Mediterranean in just over 28 hours

Despite reaching land, the young honey buzzard showed no signs of letting up and she flew a further 160 km south-south-west, before roosting in mountains on the northern edge of the Sahara. She had covered 1180 km since leaving her roost site in France 35 hours earlier.

The honey buzzard flew 1180 km in 35 hours

Yesterday she remained in her roosting area all morning, and then, after an initial movement 10 km north, she flew 60 km south-west through the mountainous Saïda province of north-west Algeria, before roosting in one of the last remaining wooded areas on the north side of the Sahara.

After two very long sea crossings, the young honey buzzard now faces another daunting challenge – her first flight across the Sahara.

The young honey buzzard is now on the northern edge of the Sahara, after flying a further 60 km south-west yesterday
She has made two very long sea crossings, both strongly influenced by the wind, since leaving Scotland

A stop-over in the Massif Central

In our previous update the young honey buzzard was roosting in eastern Belgium, close to the Luxembourg border. She has continued on south-westerly track through France and is now in the Massif Central in central-southern France where rain has interrupted her journey. She has spent the past two days in woodland on the banks of the Allier River near Clemont-Ferrand.

On the morning of 21st September she made short local movements in woodlands close her roost site in eastern Belgium before setting off in earnest at 11:00. Forty-five minutes later she was passing over the town of Bastogne at an altitude of 876 metres and she continued south-west through the rolling hills and forests of the Ardennes over the course of the next few hours before crossing the border into France at 13:35.

Conditions for migration were good with a light northerly wind and warm sunny conditions perfect for the formation of thermal updrafts. At 16:00 the GSM transmitter logged her altitude as 1686 metres as she circled high in a thermal. She maintained an almost perfect south-westerly heading all afternoon and eventually settled to roost in a large area of forest in the south of the Champagne-Ardenne region of north-eastern France, having flown 246 km at an average speed of 33 km/h during the course of the day. Her textbook migration suggests that, by now, she may well have joined other migrating honey buzzards as she heads south.

A light tailwind helped the honey buzzard fly 246 km through the Ardennes and into France on 21st September

On the morning of 22nd September the young honey buzzard made short local movements in the forest soon after first light, and then resumed her journey south at 10:50. She initially flew due south but, after crossing into the Burgundy region at 11:45, she reverted to a more south-westerly heading.  Although she was flying into a light headwind, it was clear the conditions for soaring were again good, particularly during the afternoon when she reached a maximum altitude of 1715 metres.

Conditions for soaring flight were very good on 22nd September, allowing the honey buzzard to circle up to altitudes of over 1000 metres before gliding onwards (flight left to right)

By 15:46 she had flown 107 km and at that point she again turned due south and flew another 63 km before pausing in a forested area in the south of Burgundy for half an hour at 18:00. She then flew another 9 km before settling to roost at 19:00 in an area of forest south of Toulon-sur-Arroux after a day’s flight of 179 km, at an average speed of 24 km/h.    

She flew 179 km on 22nd September

Next morning she moved between small woods in farmland a few kilometres south-west of the roost site, and also landed in fields on several occasions.  At midday she was perched in riverside trees just north of the town of Gueugnon, having only flown 10 km during the morning. She set off again soon afterwards and this time made a more purposeful move to the south-west, skirting around the north side of Gueugnon and then circling up to an altitude of 843 metres. She flew 85 km south-west over the next 3.5 hours, circling up to altitudes in excess of 1000 metres and at 15:30 was crossing the Allier River at Saint-Yorre.

It was clear from her flight altitude that conditions for migration were now deteriorating, and she flew at low altitude for the rest of the afternoon, travelling a further 40 km before settling to roost in woodland close to the Allier River, just north west of the town of Pont du Château and close to the capital of the region, Clemont-Ferrand. She had flown 135 km during the course of the day. 

The honey buzzard flew 153 km on 23rd September

Rain and low cloud meant that the young honey buzzard remained in the same area on 24th and 25th, perching in woodlands on the banks of the river. Better weather is forecast for today, so it will be interesting to see if she continues her journey south. 

The honey buzzard has spent the last two days in woodland on the banks of the Allier River
Flight between 21st and 25th September

We featured the migration of the honey buzzard in our latest podcast. You can listen online below.

Back on track

After a difficult start to her migration when she made a long overnight crossing of the North Sea from Scotland to Denmark, the juvenile female honey buzzard from Moray has made good progress south-west through Europe over the past three days and last night roosted in Belgium, a few miles from the Luxembourg border.

In our previous update the young honey buzzard was flying south over the islands of the Wadden Sea National Park on the Danish coast on the afternoon of 17th September. She crossed the border into northern Germany at 17:50 that evening and then settled to roost in a small wood between the villages of Büttjerbüll and Bordelum very close to the marshes of the Wadden Sea coast, having flown 237 km during the course of the day. 

Next morning she remained in the local area until 10:40, when she resumed her migration, once again following the coastline as she flew south. She made steady progress, and by the time she crossed the River Elbe at 15:10 she had flown 100 km from her overnight roost, flying at altitudes of up to 600 metres.

The young honey buzzard followed the Wadden Sea coastline as she headed south on 18th September

Half an hour later she was circling over the town of Bremerhaven where the River Weser reaches the Wadden Sea, and at this point, rather than following the coastline to the west, she continued south along the course of the river, before eventually settling to roost in a small wood in an agricultural area just north of the town of Brake at 17:37. She had flown 170 km during seven hours of migration, at an average speed of 24 km/h. 

The honey buzzard flew 170 km through north-west Germany on 18th September

On the following morning, 19th September, the honey buzzard left her roost site at 08:40. She crossed over Brake, before stopping again for just under an hour in an area of scattered trees and large gardens just to the south. She was flying again at 09:46 on a south-westerly heading, now diverting away from the course of the River Weser. An hour later she was approaching the city of Oldenburg. She skirted around the eastern side of the city, flying at an altitude of less than 100 metres, as she had done since leaving her roost.

Once past the city she maintained the same south-westerly course as before, likely influenced by an easterly wind of 19 km/h. At 12:37 she was flying at an altitude of 148 metres over the town of Cloppenburg and had now flown 70 km since leaving her roost. 

She continued south-west through Lower Saxony during the afternoon, soaring up to a maximum altitude of 634 metres. By 16:10 she was just five kilometres from the Netherlands border, and half an hour later she was circling over the town of Ahaus in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany. She then settled to roost in a small wood a few kilometres south of the town after flying 188 km during the course of seven-and-a-half hours of migration, at an average speed of 25 km/h.

She maintained a south-westerly course throughout the day on 19th September, flying 188 km

Yesteday morning the young honey bizzard remained close to her overnight roost until 10:40 when she set-off south-west again. Her GSM transmitter was now sufficiently charged to enable us to collect 1 GPS fix every minute, which provides a very detailed insight into her altitudinal changes, as well as her route during the day. It showed that for the first 40 minutes she flew at low altitude, often less than 100 metres, but then as the temperature increased and thermal updrafts became available, she began soaring at higher altitudes, initially up to 200-250 metres and then from midday, up to 500 metres. At 12:40 she crossed the River Rhine and had by that stage flown 56 km in two hours since leaving her roost site, aided by a light north-easely tailwind of 14 km/h.

The GSM transmitter, which logged points every minute on 20th September, showed how the young honey buzzard exploited thermal updrafts during her flight south-west that afternoon (note she is flying right to left in the image).

She maintained the same south-westerly heading during the afternoon, and flew directly over the German city of Mönchengladbach between 14:20 and 14:40, flying at altitudes of between 200-400 metres. Then, as she crossed into Belgium at 16:20, the landscape would have begun to change as she approached the Ardennes mountains. She continued on the same south-westerly heading until just before 18:00 when she settled to roost in forested valley 5 km from the border with Luxembourg, having flown 232 km during the course of the day. Her faster average speed of 32 km/h almost certainly due to the north-easterly wind that provided tailwind assistance all day. 

A north-easterly wind enabled her to fly 232 at an average speed of 32 km/h on 20th September

It is now clear that after nine days of migration the juvenile honey buzzard has recovered from the difficult start to her journey, and, aided by helpful north-easterly winds, and perhaps having met other migrating honey buzzards en route, is now almost back on her expected path. She is likely to continue south into France and then Spain before, we hope, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa.

Going with the wind

After being ringed and satellite-tagged by Roy Dennis, Ian Perks and Fraser Cormack on 11th August, the young honey buzzard’s first notable movement was on 22nd August when the satellite tag logged her 270 metres to the west. She roosted in the same location that night before returning to the nest the next day.

She remained in the vicinity of the nest for the next week but then, on 31st August, began to range further within the local woodland, up to a maximum of 4.5 km from the nest.

At midday on 11th September the honey buzzard was still in the same area but sunny conditions encouraged it to leave the woodland for the first time. She was still in the natal area at 15:27 but during the course of three hours during the afternoon she flew over 50 km east in a stiff westerly wind, passing over Dufftown and then roosting in Clashindarroch Forest.

Clear skies and a brisk westerly wind of 15 mph encouraged the young Honey Buzzard to continue east the next morning. By 09:56 she was 23 km south-east of her roost site flying at 69 km/h at an altitude of 309 metres. She continued on the same heading, passing over Bridge of Don on the north side of Aberdeen and then out into the North Sea at approximately 11:20. The next GPS fix logged her 57 km out to sea at 13:55 at an altitude of 477 metres, south-east of Aberdeen.

She flew 175 km across the sea on an easterly heading before the next GPS fix at 17:56 when she was flying at an altitude of 180 metres. As dark fell she was only mid-way across the North Sea, but she continued on an easterly heading and by 02:34 she had covered another 282 km and was now flying north-east at an altitude of 283 metres, meaning she had maintained an average speed of 33 km/h across the sea since the previous GPS fix. She finally made landfall on the Danish coast at approximately 06:30 BST having flown 640 km across the North Sea in 19 hours of non-stop flight including through the night, with nine hours of darkness and only limited moonlight. When you then factor in that she had flown an additional 52 km to the Aberdeenshire coast the previous morning, she had actually covered just under 700 km in 21.5 hours of migration – a demanding journey for a young bird of her first migration. The influence of the wind in both her initial heading and then journey across the sea was clear.

The honey buzzard flew just under 700 km with a westerly tailwind on 12-13 September, including 640 km across the North Sea

After reaching the Danish coast she stopped in a small wood just in from the coast at Agger and then remained there all day on 13th September, recovering from her arduous flight. She remained in the local area on 14th, too, before roosting in a thin strip of woodland on the edge of the village of Vestervig, 4.5 km to the east.

By 14:19 local time on 15th, she had moved 20 km south-east and was perched in another small wood in farmland 2 km from the shore of Tambosund, in the western part of the part of the Limfjord in north-west Denmark.

She remained in the same area yesterday, but this morning set-off south soon after 10:15 under sunny skies and with a helpful northerly tailwind. Three hours later she had flown 70 km almost due south and was passing to the east of Rinkøbing Fjord, flying at altitudes of up to 800 metres. On a clear sunny day she would have had a spectacular view along the coast as she headed south.

By 15:00 she had reached the town of Esbjerg, flying at an altitude of 648 metres. By now she was right on the coast, and she continued south over Vadehavet at the northern end of the famous Wadden Sea National Park. By 16:16, the last GPS fix in the batch she had just crossed the island of Rømø having already flown 180km from her overnight roost, and may now have joined other migrating honey buzzards heading south towards the German border.

The honey buzzard had flown 180 km south through Denmark by 16:15 this afternoon.
Heading south over the Wadden Sea National Park

It is exciting to be following this young honey buzzard on her fist migration south, and after a difficult start we are delighted to see her making good progress south through Denmark. We’ll be posting regular updates on the rest of her journey south towards the Strait of Gibraltar on then onwards to sub-Saharan Africa.