How to Photograph Buzzards
Now widespread across almost every corner of the UK, the common buzzard is living up to its name and is Britain’s most visible bird of prey. However, I am old enough to remember when seeing a buzzard was a real novelty, and from our home in the Midlands we used to travel down to mid-Wales to watch and photograph these charismatic raptors.
That was back in the 1980s, when buzzards had suffered for a long time from illegal persecution and the devastating effects of pesticides that saw the population restricted to the western counties of the UK. But from the mid 1990s onwards, buzzards enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, spreading rapidly eastwards and colonising parts of the country where they hadn’t been seen for decades.
How to spot buzzards
Today, you don’t have to venture too far to spot one, aided by the bird’s fondness of perching on roadside fence posts to spy a meal, or soaring on wide, buoyant wings as they scan the ground below for prey or carrion.
Their abundance and ease of spotting makes the buzzard an ideal subject to photograph, offering up a number of exciting opportunities to capture fantastic images. As with all wildlife, the first step is to track down your subject. But, as mentioned above, this shouldn’t be a problem with these large, prominent raptors.
Buzzards frequent a variety of habitats but tend to favour open ground and mature woodlands.They patrol open ground to hunt for small to medium sized mammals which make up the bulk of their diet. They retire into the mature woodlands in order to breed.
So, anywhere that has grassland suitable for voles and rabbits, with woods nearby, will almost certainly hold resident pairs of buzzards. Look out for them soaring and circling on warm sunny days when they are at their most visible. This will alert you to their whereabouts, and you can then start to watch more closely to see where they prefer to hunt.
Also scan for birds perched up on trees and fence posts, as this is often a favoured method of hunting.
Read more: How to Find and Photograph Raptors
How to photograph buzzards in flight
Buzzards retain a healthy caution of people, but in places where they have been undisturbed they can be surprisingly approachable. This is especially true when in flight, providing opportunities to capture some dynamic images. Low angled sunlight, early and late in the day, is best for this type of flight shot, so that the attractive underside of the bird’s wings is fully illuminated.
As they circle around a thermal to gain height, wait until the moment they angle their wings in such a way that the underside catches the sunlight. It is best to avoid midday sun if shooting from below, as the underside will be in shadow.
Although, this can be overcome if there is snow on the ground, or very light-coloured ground cover, as this will reflect some of the sunlight back up onto the bird.
In some places it may be possible to shoot eye-level flight shots. Buzzards are birds of hilly country and like to use thermals rising up on the sides of hills to gain height, especially early in the day when the air is still.
Positioning yourself at the top of a hill frequented by buzzards (and possibly other raptors as well, such as red kites and kestrels), is a great way to capture them from different angles.
This higher level shooting angle also means that it may be possible to shoot them against the land below, rather than against the sky. This can provide a more interesting backdrop, and also means you can shoot in a wider range of lighting conditions.
In this instance, overhead sunlight may actually be beneficial, particularly if you are shooting slightly down onto the back of the bird.
How to focus on buzzards
Maintaining accurate autofocus on a moving bird the size of a buzzard shouldn’t be a problem for most modern DSLRs. Most have excellent focus tracking systems that allow the bird to be continuously maintained in focus.
This is achieved using the camera’s continuous or Servo focus mode, which means that the camera will make continuous adjustment to the focus as the bird moves towards or away from the camera.
When shooting against the plain background of the sky, you could select just one, or multiple, focusing points. As long as one or more of these points remains on the bird, then the camera should accurately keep it in focus. When shooting against a less uniform backdrop there is a greater chance that focus will jump from the bird onto the background.
To minimise the chance of this happening, select just one or a small cluster of focus points (the central point(s) are usually the most sensitive/accurate on most cameras). Make sure that this point(s) is maintained on the bird as you track it.
How to photograph hunting buzzards
Trying to photograph buzzards while they are hunting is more tricky, as this is likely to be quite random and sudden. So, the chance of being in the right place at the right time is less likely. However, buzzards do like to use regular perches to hunt from, so this is a good place to start.
It’s unlikely that you would be able to stalk close enough to a buzzard to get a decent image, but it is possible to utilise a vehicle as a hide, if you are able to park up in a safe place frequented by buzzards. If it’s an area where the birds have got used to seeing cars, they will be less wary.
Use a bean bag slung over the window frame to support the camera and lens, and trap some camouflage netting (available from army surplus stores and wildlife watching/hunting suppliers) into the door frame, so that this hangs down over the window and around the lens to obscure your face and hands.
Maintain the camera/lens in position on the bean bag and keep it as still as possible, only making slow and steady movements when needed. Buzzards have super sharp eyesight and will pick up on camera movements very quickly. This might make them suspicious.
How to photograph worming buzzards
When larger prey is in short supply, and also after rain, buzzards can be seen marching around fields, searching for earthworms. This may seem like a small meal for a large bird like a buzzard, but they can find good numbers under certain conditions, and it can form an important part of their diet. A small hide situated on the edge of a field frequented by ‘worming’ buzzards is a great way to capture this behaviour.
Seek permission form the landowner beforehand and, if possible, leave your hide in position for a few days to allow the birds to become accustomed to it. Due to their suspicious nature, it is best to enter the hide unseen.
You may be able to use the cover of a hedge or stone wall to creep into the hide undetected. Alternatively, make an early start and approach it in the dark. Dawn is a great time for bird activity and there is the bonus of attractive warm light as the sun rises.
How to utilise scavenging
As well as hunting for prey, buzzards are scavengers. You might have seen them feeding on roadkill, or perched up nearby, waiting for an opportunity to grab themselves an easy meal. This is a trait that can be used very effectively to your advantage.
It’s usually not too difficult to find some roadkill (rabbits, hares, and pheasants) that you can safely retrieve and use to lure buzzards down to a more photogenic spot. I even bought a chest freezer for this purpose, which I keep well stocked with unfortunate casualties that I use during the autumn/winter as bait.
In areas where there is a good population of buzzards, it won’t take long for several birds to discover the bait, and they will soon be down to feed. Again, it’s possible to use your vehicle as a hide, using the same technique as described previously.
Place the bait 30-50m away and then sit and wait. Depending on the area, buzzards and other birds, such as crows and kites, can lock onto the bait very quickly. With plenty of birds around, there can be a lot of activity with competition for the food.
Read more: How to Set Up a Feeding Station for Wildlife
How to set up a baiting project
Whilst this approach can be very successful, you may prefer to undertake a longer term project. This will allow you to fully consider the location and background to your shots, and give you more control over your images. Putting out food on a regular basis will also mean that birds become used to the routine and are more likely to visit.
During the breeding season, buzzards tend to prefer to catch their own prey so that they can take this back for their chicks in the nest. Therefore, late summer through to early spring is generally the best period for a baiting project.
Find a spot that will afford an attractive background and is in good light for some of the day. Buzzards often feed both early and late in the day, so a set-up that catches the morning or evening light would work very well. The bait can be placed on the ground.
However, if you can find a hummock or raised banking that allows you to shoot at eye level to the bird, that would be perfect. Not only will this produce more intimate images of the subject, but it will also mean that the background is more diffused, which will help make the bird better stand out.
How to set up a hide
You’ll need a hide of some sort and, if you are planning on a longer term project, it makes sense to construct something that is going to withstand the weather and can be left in place for some time. A simple wooden box with an opening for the camera/lens that you can cover with netting is ideal. This can be camouflaged with vegetation and branches to help it blend in with its surroundings.
The advantage of this type of hide is that the buzzards will become used to it as part of the landscape and, as a consequence, will be more confiding. If this isn’t possible, then a portable hide would also work. Again, camouflage it as much as possible to help relax the birds.
Buzzards can be sensitive to noise as well as to sudden movements, so try to keep as quiet and still as possible when working from a hide at close quarters. If your camera has a ‘silent’ shooting mode, select this to minimise noise. Better still, if you are using a mirrorless camera you can choose to shoot completely silently. Always remain vigilant whilst in the hide.
How to photograph perching buzzards
Buzzards often like to perch up nearby to check things out before dropping down to the bait. When there are several birds in attendance, younger or less dominant birds will perch up and wait for their chance to feed. This can provide a great chance to photograph them away from the food. After feeding, a bird may also return to a perch to clean its bill or undertake a bout of preening.
So, if there aren’t any obvious perches close to your baited site, it is definitely worth introducing one or two, and placing them at strategic positions against a suitable background.
However you choose to photograph these characterful raptors, you’re likely to be rewarded with some wonderful images. They are stunning birds when seen close-up and, unlike most bird species, their individual plumage can be highly variable, with plumage colouring ranging from very pale through to dark brown.
This, combined with their piercing eyes and bright yellow talons, makes them a handsome bird to get to grips with. You may have to work hard for your photographs, but this is part of the challenge of photographing these attractive raptors. And it makes it even more rewarding when you manage to capture an image to be proud of!
Read more in our So You Want to Be a Wildlife Photographer? eBook.