Thursday, 27 May 2010

MEGA - Adult male RED-FOOTED FALCON on Wilstone


Well, one major change in weather. After basking in temperatures of 84 degrees fahrenheit at the weekend, today was often like winter again. Temperatures had tumbled and the wind had veered from light easterly to fresh northerly.

Overnight I had decided to travel to Suffolk to see Golden Orioles at Lakenheath RSPB and so departed Little Chalfont very early to be in position shortly after dawn. Although I enjoyed crippling views of a male in Trial Wood not long after 0700 hours, whilst waiting for it to reappear, I heard the astounding news that Roy Hargreaves had glimpsed a male Red-footed Falcon by Rushy Meadow at the back of Tring Reservoirs around 0725 hours. I was well and truly gripped off and although I had managed to see the 70 Acres female Red-footed Falcon of 2008 just inside Hertfordshire, being so close to home was mighty annoying...................

(1015-2100 hours)

As soon as Dave Bilcock phoned to say that he had seen the RED-FOOTED FALCON again at 0815 hours, Alan Stewart and I made the decision to head straight back to Hertfordshire. At the same time, I made sure I contacted the keenest of the Tring birding circuit (Steve Rodwell and others), as well as RBA and other birders elsewhere in Hertfordshire (JT, Frossy, Alan Reynolds, et al). DB had seen the bird briefly over the trees and reedbed in the far SW corner and as more and more people joined in the search, Steve Rodwell eventually relocated it flying towards the Dry Canal and Miswell Lane at 0940. In fact, it had flown and settled on a fencepost just 50 yards east of the canal bridge in Drayton Beauchamp village (in Buckinghamshire) and as DB, Ben Miller, Mick Frosdick, JT and RH arrived at the scene, it remained for about five minutes before taking flight once more. DB typically obtained shots of the bird as it sat there, utilising his mobile phone (see images above).

The bird then flew down towards Wilstone Reservoir where it was quickly picked up flying over the Drayton Bank and as the weather greatly improved, it started feeding over the reservoir flying back and forth. Many more birders then connected and with a return drive time of just over 80 minutes, Alan and I arrived in the car park at 1015.

We were very lucky indeed, as with clearing skies and warm sunshine, the bird was still present and hawking back and forth over the Drayton Bank. It was often flying very high and was associating with up to 6 Hobbies and followed a well rehearsed circuit. It was presumably feeding on flies and perhaps the odd Dragonfly and could easily be viewed from the bank at the top of the steps up from the car park. Being mad keen to add it to my Buckinghamshire List, I kept a constant vigil on its whereabouts, before eventually dropping off to sleep (after three hours of waiting). During this time, some 45 birders arrived and succeeded, including Brendan Glynne, Bob Chalkley, Lol Carman, Cliff Tack, Johnne Taylor, Warren Claydon, Mike & Rose Collard, Chaz Jackson, Martin Parr, Steve Blake, Mike Ilett, and many of the regulars.

At 1410 hours, Adam Bassett and others caught sight of it robbing a male Common Kestrel of its prey - a Field Vole - and after successfully snatching it, flew with it in its talons to one of the Ash trees just 50 yards west of the main car park. Seeing Adam beckoning, Alan and I and those others present hastily made our way over to him and the sight that beheld was hardly believable. The Red-footed Falcon was sat just 20 yards above on a branch and devouring its meal - absolutely awesome. It completely filled my entire 'scope view. I could see each and every fine detail of plumage, including that of the wings and tail, and could see its pale claws and dark brown iris. It was breathtaking.

Alan raced off to get his camera whilst AB, JT, Alan Reynolds, Mike Hirst, Geoff Young, Andy Grimsey, Peter Leigh and I obtained some exceptional views at remarkably close range. It took 20 minutes for the entire Field Vole to be eaten, and that included the tail and the feet - the period also allowing Alan to rattle off over 40 images.

With such crippling views being afforded, I was finally able to be confident about ageing the bird, with the lack of any barring on the underwing and the complete dark tail confirming an adult male.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION: A small falcon, very similar in size to the accompanying Hobbies but more rounded at the primary tips and broader based in the wing, and slightly longer in the tail. In active flight, the Red-foot flew on faster wing-beats, with more pronounced upstrokes and deeper downstrokes than the tighter, more powerful and stiffer action of the Hobby flight actions. The bird was very uniform grey above, with a noticeably dark underwing, a paler grey body and a very contrasting black upper tail. It had striking pale silvery-grey outer primaries and deep rufous ventral region. When perched, it was very long-winged, and at such close range, I noticed that the iris was dark brown, the claws were very pale and the cere, orbital skin and feet were reddish-orange. Not only was the cere this colour but also the base of the bill.

In flight, the innermost primary of the right wing was either broken or missing but otherwise the bird was in immaculate condition, with just some abrasion on the tail and some light wear on the outer primaries. There was no evidence from what I could see of any retained barred juvenile remiges and the tail at close quarters appeared all-black. With such obvious silvery primaries, first-summer could quite easily be ruled out and with no obvious barring anywhere, the likelihood of an advanced 2nd-summer was also discounted. The vent, thighs and undertail-coverts were contrastingly rufous-red in colour, with the rest of the underparts, uniform dark bluish-grey. The upperparts were also bluish-grey, apart from the uppertail coverts and tail which were black. Whilst perched, I could see that the primaries were wearing somewhat browner towards the outers but in general were uniform dark grey, whilst in flight, these flight feathers and outer secondaries were silvery grey.

Comparing with Dick Forsman's collection of images depicted in the 1999 edition of his Raptor Field Identification Handbook, the bird was virtually identical to those depicted as adult males in Plates 585 and 586 - pages 467-468.

The bird sat in the Ash tree by the car park for 20 minutes before flying back out towards the Drayton Bank, where it instantly resumed flycatching, despite having an obvious full crop. It then continued this pattern of behaviour for the next four hours before finally flying off high to the west mid-evening. At this time, it again flew towards the bridge in Drayton Beauchamp but doubled back and eventually perched in a tall tree in the meadow at the back of the hide. On a number of occasions, the bird entered Buckinghamshire airspace but refused to settle there and never perched. This proved frustrating.

Alan and I continued watching the bird well into the evening when the weather changed for the worse, bringing heavy cloud, some light rain and much cooler conditions. It continued to feed over the Drayton Bank until at least 2100 hours when we left, and over the 11 hours of observation, it only rested on four occasions, quite exceptional for this species.

During the course of the afternoon and evening, a further 55 observers visited, including Graham Smith, Darrel Bryant, Neil Bostock, Neil Fletcher, Andrew Moon, Nic Hallam, Paul Hackett, Jenny Wallington, Rob Andrews and Darin Stanley.

Other Species Noted Today

Great Crested Grebe (12 - SR had seen families of four and one young respectively)
Continental Cormorant (at least 11 active nests, all with young, some with 3 youngsters)
LITTLE EGRET (1 roosted on the Drayton Bank)
Grey Heron (some fledged young and many more being fed in the Drayton Bank nests)
Mute Swan (pair with 3 surviving cygnets - originally 5 strong)
Greylag & Atlantic Canada Geese
*COMMON SHELDUCK (pair present in evening which later flew off west into Bucks)
Gadwall (8)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (3 drakes still present and at least one female)
NORTHERN POCHARD (at least 10 still present)
Tufted Duck (33)
Red Kites (10+, including a party of 5)
Common Buzzard (6+)
Eurasian Sparrowhawk (pair feeding young near hide)
Common Kestrel (male)
HOBBY (maximum of 6 feeding at any one given time but birds on view all day)
Red-legged Partridge (2 pairs in fields by the Dry Canal)
Coot (1 pair with 6 small young)
Black-headed Gull (1 first-summer)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (25 in evening, all flying NE towards Grovebury)
Common Tern (38 pairs breeding and 84 birds present in evening)
Stock Dove (4)
COMMON CUCKOO (one male seen well in meadow behind hide and calling on and off all day)
COMMON SWIFT (a gathering of at least 820 birds, keeping high over the west side of the reservoir)
COMMON KINGFISHER (for the first time in many months, 3 birds present - a pair feeding a single young)
Eurasian Skylark (pairs nesting; 5 individuals seen in fields near Dry Canal)
European Barn Swallow (25)
House Martin (4)
Pied Wagtail (2)
COMMON WHITETHROAT (3 singing males in Dry Canal area)
CETTI'S WARBLER (1 in song)
Great Tit (pair nesting by Dry Canal)
Jay (3-4 in gardens behind meadow)
Linnet (4 in fields near Rushy Meadow)
Yellowhammer (2 pairs in fields near Rushy Meadow)

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