The previous time we visited, the flat fenland landscape had been concealed behind an opaque veil of freezing fog. Beyond the frost-encrusted vegetation in the dykes, and the white-crystalled, crispy grass, there was nothing to see. This time, all was revealed.
Scanning the flatness, we watched and waited. Panning left to right, then right to left, past Peterborough Cathedral, the East Coast main line, St Peter’s church at Yaxley, the towering chimneys of the King’s Dyke brickworks, and the peaty soil of what was the long-forgotten Whittlesey Mere.
A short-eared owl floated overhead, stiff-winged, gliding and somehow butterfly-like. Corn buntings perched on the telegraph wires above the dyke and sheep grazed the rough pasture.
We were looking for a ‘hovering’ bird. As as kestrel flew into the wind, its wings were a blur of activity and its head completely stationary – eyes fixed on prey hidden in the long grass below. Impressive, but not what we’d come to see.
Suddenly, it came into view. A much bigger bird, gliding in the distance, with long, broad wings which ended in splayed ‘fingertips’. It was a rough-legged buzzard, patrolling its winter hunting ground at the Great Fen.
The roughleg ‘hovered’ too – though only hummingbirds can truly hover. It beat its broad wings with its head bowed towards the ground, watching and listening for signs of voles, mice or rats beneath it. Only a few weeks earlier it could have been hunting lemmings on its breeding grounds.
High above the ground, we wondered how it would come down quickly enough if it found a target. The answer: it descended steadily and gracefully in stages, like a child’s balloon pulled gently from below, dropping vertically towards the ground.
The species gets its name from its feathered legs, suited to the climate of northern Europe and Russia. The scientific name Buteo lagopus (‘hare-footed buzzard’) further describes this feature.
It was a good winter to see one of these Arctic wanderers in the UK; a few rough-legged buzzards make their way to our shores every winter, but sometimes larger numbers arrive, depending on food supplies in northern Europe.