Identifying Southern African Buzzards

There are seven species of Buzzard found in Southern African, namely:

– Augur Buzzard
– Forest Buzzard
– Jackal Buzzard
– Steppe Buzzard
– Lizard Buzzard
– Long-Legged Buzzard
– European Honey Buzzard

It would not be accurate to call the ‘Cape Mystery Buzzard’, as it’s become known, a separate species altogether. Though it will be distinguished and talked about in further detail in this article.

I will be sharing in ways that I find useful in helping to identify different Southern African Buzzards that for some may prove challenging. I will only be focusing on the Forest Buzzard, Jackal Buzzard, Steppe Buzzard and ‘Cape Mystery Buzzard’.

Each bird will be addressed separately, highlighting features that are present in varying stages of the bird’s plumage. While adult Buzzards are usually fairly easy to distinguish between, the plumage of younger birds and those in molt can sometimes be very confusing.

Jackal Buzzards (Buteo rufofuscus)

Jackal Buzzards are medium-large Buzzards which are endemic to Southern Africa. Their range extends from the north-west of Namibia and through most of South Africa. They are extremely common, and continue to breed successfully in most areas.

Morphs and Variable Plumage

There are three colour morphs of Jackal Buzzard. The typical morph remains the most common, while both the dark and the pale morphs are rarer. The colour morphs are generally defined by the appearance of the chest band that extends across the body of the individual. In most individuals, this band is predominantly rufous in colour, with a presence of white and black. In the pale and dark morphs, this band can lack one or even two of the three colours. In dark morphs you will find that the chest band can be completely black. In pale morphs, there will usually be a lack of rufous colouring and will be mostly white.

It is worth noting that there seems to be a larger presence of pale individuals in the Northern Cape and Namibia.

Differences Between Ages

Juvenile Jackal Buzzards tend to be for the most part brown, with some darker brown streaking on the chest and body, and can resemble a Steppe Buzzard. The tail of these juveniles tends to be white though may depend on the individual, as only some of the adult birds develop a defined sub-terminal band on the tail. From the top, the upper wings may be hard to differentiate from a Steppe Buzzard, especially when perched – though if spread out you may be able to see signs of white developing along the tops of the primaries. The flight feathers on the under wings tend to be light with minimal light coloured barring often present, the trailing edge should be visible, though lighter than with adult birds. The under wing coverts of the juveniles tend to be of a caramel or washed out brown colouring. As with most Buzzards, the eye of the juvenile bird is very light.

Immature Jackal Buzzards can be easier to identify, as adult diagnostic features begin to develop. Immature birds will often show signs of developing the darker adult plumage, with dark patches or blotches on the body. There may be signs of the rufous chest band starting to show through. The tail will often begin to show signs of turning a rufous colour, as they grow older. The eye will still appear light through most of the immature stage. From above, the upper wings will also show more visible development of white along the flight feathers.

Adult birds become much more easy to identify as they develop their slaty black bodies, and their chest band develops. The only time when there could be confusion between species with adult individuals, is when there is a pale morph individual that resembles a Juvenile Augur Buzzard, though these two species ranges only overlap in very small areas.

Differentiating Between Juvenile Jackal and Steppe Buzzard

For the most part, young Jackal Buzzards are easy to distinguish from most of the other Southern African Buzzards. However, Steppe Buzzards are very similar to many of the juvenile Jackal Buzzards and as such, I will attempt to document some of the ways in which I distinguish the two species.

This is probably where I see the most people struggling with Buzzard IDs. Juvenile Jackal Buzzards can most certainly look like Steppe Buzzards, but there are usually a few ways to tell them apart. With regards to plumage, the coverts offer a lot of insight usually and looking for the caramel colour will often allow one to help differentiate between the two. The far edges of the primary coverts may also show signs of a darker brown which contrasts with the caramel. While Steppe Buzzards can have similar shades of brown on their coverts, a difference can usually be noted by taking into account the rest of the coverts colouring. Another key identifying feature is the shape of the wings. The Jackal Buzzard, even juveniles – tend to have a more bulging shape to their secondary flight feathers, while the Steppe Buzzard will mostly have a fairly straight wing in comparison. Also remember to look at the eye, adult Steppe Buzzards won’t have the same light eye colour as the younger Jackal Buzzards.

In immature birds, as mentioned before – distinguishing between other Buzzards becomes easier and this is also the case when comparing the Jackal Buzzard to the Steppe Buzzard. Darker brown or even black patches on Immature Jackal Buzzards often allow for easy diagnostic features. The chest band will also usually show some signs of starting to develop and help further remove it from the Steppe Buzzard-like appearance. Carefully examine the tail for signs of rufous colouring developing in the feathers. The upper wings can also hold identifying factors; immature Jackal Buzzards begin to develop the white ‘vents’ on the top of the flight feathers, which contain barring. Look for signs of greyish barred feathers on the upper flight feathers.

Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)

Steppe Buzzards are migratory birds which with possible exception, come down to South Africa in the Spring and stay until late Summer to early Autumn. It is however possible that some individuals remain in South Africa over the winter period and the topic of over wintering Steppe Buzzards is an interesting one (view Mystery Buzzard below).

Morphs and Variable Plumage

The Steppe Buzzard is a species of bird that has what is possibly one of the largest variety in plumage out of all other raptors. There are two main morphs that Steppe Buzzards are classified into (Rufous and Grey), and even within those morphs the exact plumage differs greatly between individuals. To document the details of each possible appearance would be near impossible.

Differences Between Ages

Steppe Buzzards, unlike Jackal Buzzards do not change that much in appearance through the aging process, and younger birds tend to look a lot like the older birds. The key to distinguishing them usually lies in the eye colour, as younger birds will have pale eyes. Juvenile and Immature Steppe Buzzards may also show a less defined trailing edge on their flight feathers, though even the trailing edge is a variable factor in adult birds, with some being more prominent than others.

Differentiating Between Steppe and Forest Buzzard

The second most common difficulty people run into with Buzzard identification (Mystery Buzzard aside) is the confusion between Steppe Buzzard and Forest Buzzard. The plumage of these two species can sometimes be quite similar. The first thing to look at, when attempting to differentiate between these two species, is to note the pattern of the markings on the body of the bird. Forest Buzzards have tear-drop markings, and while some Steppe Buzzards also show similar markings, the Forest Buzzard will tend to be a lot lighter overall. The next thing to look at are the coverts; the coverts of Forest Buzzard are a lot more pale than that of Steppe Buzzards, when comparing both species side by side, it is easy to note that the amount of white present on the coverts of the Forest Buzzard is far more substantial than that of the mostly brown coverts found on the Steppe Buzzard. Forest Buzzards will often have a very white flank near the tail, though this can also be present on some Steppe Buzzards. The white band that is sometimes present on Steppe Buzzards is much more defined in Forest Buzzards – with a lot more white.

One should also compare the shape of the wings and the size of the body. Forest Buzzards tend to have a more bulky appearance than the more slender shaped Steppe Buzzard. The Forest Buzzard will also have more bulging on the secondary flight feathers than a Steppe Buzzard, along with slightly shorter wings.

While certainly not fool-proof, it can also help to consider the habitat when making a call on these two species. Steppe Buzzards will far more commonly be found along road sides of empty fields, while the Forest Buzzard will usually be within range of a forested area.

Forest Buzzard (?)

Identification

Key Features on Adult Birds

Features Jackal Buzzard Steppe Buzzard Forest Buzzard Cape Buzzard
Under Wings – Bulging Secondaries
– Black Coverts
– Black Trailing Edges
– Minimal Barring on Flights
– Fairly Straight Winged
– Variable Brown and White Coverts
– Dark Trailing Edge
– Light Banding Often Present
– Bulging Secondaries
– Primarily White and Brown Coverts
– Dark Trailing Edge
– Numerous Light Barring
– Highly Variable
Upper Wing — Distinct White On Top of Flight Feathers
– Barring of the Upper Flight Feathers
– Trailing Edge Visible
– Light Barring Across Flight Feathers – Unknown – Variable Between Morphs
Eye – Pale to Dark Brown – Pale to Dark Brown – Pale to Dark Brown – Pale to Dark Brown
Tail – Underparts White or Red/Rufous
– Dark Subterminal Band Sometimes Present
– Rufous/Red Upper Tail
– Off-White Underparts
– Variable Barring on Upper/Underparts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Light Barring Visible
– Light Barring Visible on Under Parts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Highly Variable
Body – Typically Black Body
– White and Rufous Chest
– Chest Colour Varies on Morph
– Plumage Can Vary on Locality
– Extremely Variable Plumage
– Brown, With Lighter Chest Band Most Common
– White and Brown Underparts
– Lighter Body Than Steppe Buzzard
– White Band Across Chest
– White Patch on Flank Near Tail
– Extremely Variable Plumage

Key Features on Immature Birds

Features Jackal Buzzard Steppe Buzzard Forest Buzzard Cape Buzzard
Under Wings – Bulging Secondaries
– Black Coverts
– Black Trailing Edges
– Minimal Barring on Flights
– Fairly Straight Winged
– Variable Brown and White Coverts
– Dark Trailing Edge
– Light Banding Often Present
– Bulging Secondaries
– Primarily White and Brown Coverts
– Dark Trailing Edge
– Numerous Light Barring
– Highly Variable
Upper Wing – Distinct White On Top of Flight Feathers
– Barring of the Upper Flight Feathers
– Trailing Edge Visible
– Light Barring Across Flight Feathers – Unknown – Variable Between Morphs
Eye – Dark Brown – Dark Brown – Dark Brown – Dark Brown
Tail – Underparts White or Red/Rufous
– Dark Subterminal Band Sometimes Present
– Rufous/Red Upper Tail
– Off-White Underparts
– Variable Barring on Upper/Underparts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Light Barring Visible
– Light Barring Visible on Under Parts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Highly Variable
Body – Typically Black Body
– White and Rufous Chest
– Chest Colour Varies on Morph
– Plumage Can Vary on Locality
– Extremely Variable Plumage
– Brown, With Lighter Chest Band Most Common
– White and Brown Underparts
– Lighter Body Than Steppe Buzzard
– White Band Across Chest
– White Patch on Flank Near Tail
– Extremely Variable Plumage

Key Features on Juvenile Birds

Features Jackal Buzzard Steppe Buzzard Forest Buzzard Cape Buzzard
Under Wings – Caramel/Light Brown Coverts
– Trailing Edges Less Defined Than Adults
– Similar to Adults
– Trailing Edges Less Defined Than Adults
– Similar to Adults
– Trailing Edges Less Defined Than Adults
– Similar to Adults
– Trailing Edges Less Defined Than Adults
Upper Wing – Similar to Adults – Similar to Adults – Unknown – Similar to Adults
Eye – Pale Eye – Pale Eye – Pale Eye – Pale Eye
Tail – Underparts White or Red/Rufous
– Dark Subterminal Band Sometimes Present
– Rufous/Red Upper Tail
– Off-White Underparts
– Variable Barring on Upper/Underparts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Light Barring Visible
– Light Barring Visible on Under Parts
– Sub-terminal Band Often Present
– Highly Variable
Body – Typically Black Body
– White and Rufous Chest
– Chest Colour Varies on Morph
– Plumage Can Vary on Locality
– Extremely Variable Plumage
– Brown, With Lighter Chest Band Most Common
– White and Brown Underparts
– Lighter Body Than Steppe Buzzard
– White Band Across Chest
– White Patch on Flank Near Tail
– Extremely Variable Plumage

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in bird identification. I have only been birding for a few years, but in that time I have focused most of my attention on raptors, and while my skills are certainly not on par with the best, I have been exposed to many various individuals of specific raptor species. With each sighting is a lesson to be learned, and the ability to accurately identify the species in future.

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