Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Amur Falcon in Cornwall 7th July 2017

I worked late into the night on Thursday catching up on work emails and administrative matters that I had been putting off. Earlier in the day I had spent a fruitful but hot and tiring day in Bernwood Forest looking for Purple Emperor butterflies-see my previous blog post Back to Bernwood 6th July 2017

I finished my work at one in the morning and collapsed into bed. Bliss. As is my custom each night before going to sleep I  consulted the Twitter feed on my i-phone and was intrigued to see a couple of tweets about an Amur Falcon in West Cornwall, one of which was from Justin, an Oxonbirder colleague, saying he was going to 'go for it' tomorrow afternoon if it was still around. There was also a very good photo of the bird in question posted by someone else. I was both incredulous and intrigued. 

Only one other Amur Falcon, an immature male had been seen in Britain up to now and that was at Tophill Low in Yorkshire from 14th September-15th October 2008. At first this bird was considered to be a Red-footed Falcon, which is an annual vagrant to Britain each year and many birders consequently showed little or no overt interest in going to see it. It was only after photos were examined late on in its extended stay, when it had commenced moulting, that it was discovered its underwing coverts were changing to white which is a diagnostic feature of a male Amur Falcon. The falcon then inconveniently disappeared just as its true identity was revealed, so many missed seeing the bird and have been regretting it ever since. It is a very, very rare bird in Britain. a mega in twitcher parlance and the presence of this individual in Cornwall, if true and the identification was correct, had all the makings of bringing on a major twitch, despite it being a weekday. 

To try and get further information I then checked the Rare Bird Alert (RBA) app. on my i-phone which in my tired state I had not checked since getting home from Bernwood in the afternoon. Well nothing rare turns up in July does it? Of course not! We will gloss over the fact that I found Britain's second ever Crag Martin at Beachy Head in West Sussex. The date? The  9th July 1988!

On RBA I found several entries about the Amur Falcon, which had been found in the evening by a local birder, Mark Wallace, on his regular walk down Bosisto Lane, near Porthgwarra, with the entries commencing from ten past nine that evening onwards. So it was true. The falcon was a first summer female, which means it was a bird in its second calendar year and not a full adult and it was to be found at a place called Raftra Farm Crossroads near Porthgwarra, two and a half miles southeast of Lands End. Just to rub it in the reports said it was showing well but ominously it was last seen at nine forty in the evening when it flew off south.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, my heart racing and inwardly cursing at the situation now confronting me. Tired, mentally and physically I had just been contemplating the sleep of the just and then a gentle shopping trip to Oxford tomorrow and now those two old twitching friends, adrenalin and excitement were turning my world upside down and blowing any chance of sleep out of the proverbial window. I was in a quandary as it was daunting to contemplate going all the way to Cornwall tonight on such flimsy news. It is such a long way and the tedious drive, from previous experiences, seems to go on forever. It's a long drive just to get to Cornwall and then I would have to drive the entire length of the county as the falcon was seen virtually at the westernmost tip of Cornwall. I put out the light and tried to calm myself and go to sleep. After all I could go in the morning if it was still reported as present. I tossed and turned, my mind racing, mentally tortured by an onslaught of anxieties.What if it had flown off forever this evening? It was, after all, last seen to fly south. What if it was not there the next day? If I waited for positive news that it was still there tomorrow and then went to see it, the traffic in Cornwall on the notorious A30 would be horrendous. It would be a Friday and it is school holiday time. It would take many frustrating hours to get there. Why couldn't I stop worrying about all this?

An inner voice of sanity and reason said 'Leave it, there will be other twitches'. I resolved not to go and put out the light once more. Minutes later I switched on the light. It was no good. I could not rest. The challenge was irresistible. It was a very rare bird and who knows when another would be seen in Britain. 

I had no choice. 

I had to go. 


I am going for it. 'What now? Are you crazy?' said the voice of  sanity and reason. 'Yes now' said another irrational but beguiling voice.  I knew I would not sleep and rather than just lie in bed fretting I may as well drive to Cornwall. Well you would, wouldn't you?

At one thirty in the morning I donned tee shirt and shorts in double quick time, grabbed the camera bag, checked I had fully charged batteries for the camera, collected bins and scope and crept downstairs as quietly as possible and loaded everything into the car. I entered the post code for Porthgwarra into the Satnav and drove slowly down our drive. 

An adventure into the unknown had begun. 

Outcome uncertain.

I got to the end of the drive. Oh! Oh! I forgot Mrs U! Back to the house and I left a scribbled note on the kitchen table to explain my absence when she rose next morning. 

 'Gone to Cornwall - Amur Falcon x'

I drove off into the warm night. The darkness in our rural village was familiar and re-assuring but doubts and anxieties now whirled in my head. I did not feel good about this and common sense said forget it but something inner and not to be denied urged me on. This was a supreme gamble as no one knew if the bird would be there tomorrow. I was going to drive through the night for four and half hours on nothing more than a vague hope. Yes,  I know, but this is what twitching is about. A gamble, an addictive, irrational pastime involving  dicing with fate and chance, with no financial reward, in fact the opposite, but just the promise of an indescribable feeling of well being borne on a huge swell of emotion and triumph if the gamble pays off. Heady stuff.

I was tired, very tired but for the first hour sheer adrenalin kept me going and the comforts of the automatic Audi hardly taxed my driving capabilities. Having cleared the rural roads crossing the Cotswolds I joined an M5 Motorway devoid of private cars, instead harbouring convoys of steadily moving huge lorries, those night time leviathans, each lorry spaced apart as they progressed in the inside lane, with four red mesmeric lights in the blackness denoting the square back of the container each was hauling.

An hour and a half later I pulled over into Sedgemoor Services and entered the spookily deserted rest area. Not a soul was to be seen  Dazed and still wondering what I had got myself into I stared about with glazed eyes smarting from the bright neon lighting, an optical assault after the darkness of the road. I needed a coffee badly. I knew my blood sugar was at its lowest at this time of night, creating mental mayhem and distorting my outlook on life but perversely my presence in the Motorway Services was a re-assurance about what I was doing for I knew I was not unique or alone in feeling as I did, as other service stations would be providing similar brief sanctuary and/or torment for other anxious birders embarked on the same mission as me.

Someone materialised from behind a counter. I ordered a large latte. He was a young lad, a student and chatty. 

'Long journey?' he enquired

 'Lands End'. I replied.

 'On holiday?'  

'You don't want to know.' I mumbled. 

'Oh go on tell me.' 

'I'm going to see a rare bird.'  


Then silence.

A few sips of coffee, a short stroll to stretch my legs and I was revived enough to carry on. I felt better now and by Exeter was almost bouyant of mood, no doubt due to the coffee and its caffeine fix but this soon dissipated, as reading the passing road signs, names and mileages, I realised just how much further I had to drive. Doubt and anxiety closed in again.

I turned from the Motorway onto the A30, that like a spine runs down through the centre of Cornwall and at this ungodly hour was traffic free, with every holidaying caravan parked up for the night in the numerous laybys. The dawn was already rising, pale grey through the windscreen as I headed west whilst a delicate shade of pink rising in the east, filled the rear view mirror. The comfort of the all encompassing darkness had now gone and the increasing visibility of the contours of the surrounding countryside seemed to accentuate my apprehension and sense of insecurity. Soon now I would know whether my gamble was going to pay off as birders would be out looking for the falcon at first light and were probably doing so right now. I pressed on, crossing Bodmin Moor, wild and empty, the road a ribbon of grey in the morning's half light, lonely and unwelcoming. I descended from the moor and patches of low lying mist, like strands of cotton wool, snuggled in the folds of the land below. It could almost be Avalon.

Truro, Redruth, Penzance came and went and now I found myself in that part of Cornwall that to me always conjures up romantic images from a half remembered childhood holiday  in Cornwall. A triangle of land, that seems to have slipped back through time. An imagined time warp not real at all but just a wishful and romantic thinking on my part, of high banked, winding, curving, secret lanes, rural hamlets, occasional farms, and isolated old cottages that are almost part of the land itself, tucked away in folds of land and redolent of another time. A corner that time forgot maybe, but with its apex being Lands End  where any semblance or indulgence to romanticism comes to a juddering halt in the harsh reality of rampant commercialism. You even have to pay to get in these days.

With the onset of dawn I had commenced checking my RBA app several times as I progressed westwards but there was no news about the falcon.This could go either way but surely if it was there it would have been reported by now? I was in glass half empty mode and already dreading the long drive of shame back home if the falcon was no longer there.

I felt flat, not quite depressed, more apprehensive, as  surely  with the time now approaching six am news should have been available if the falcon was present. There was still hope. No news either way is good news. I slid into a morose mood, tired, dispirited and frayed from a night of no sleep. I was very close to my destination and the moment of truth would soon be upon me and all the other birders who had made the same long journey. Robotically I guided the car down the final leg of narrowing, sinuous lanes, turning right, turning left, going straight on, obeying the Satnav as it intoned its directions. I came to a crossroads. I turned yet another blind corner and came to a junction with cars randomly parked wherever possible on the surrounding narrow grass verges. Two birders carrying scopes were running along the road, across the junction, towards a stile that gave entrance to a large field that sloped upwards.

My heart leapt. A surge of adrenalin consumed me and immediately I felt energised. The long night hours and hard driven miles were forgotten in an instant. Although there had been no news on my RBA app the behaviour of the birders told me all I needed to know. They were on a mission with which  I was all too familiar. 

The falcon was still present and they were running to see it! 

What I  learnt later, was that birders had been looking for the falcon since 4.30am but there was no sign of it until it was found roosting in the hedge running between the field and the lane, just before I arrived. The running birders were consumed by that irrational paranoia that grabs each and everyone of us in such situations, that the bird is going to fly off at this very instant and we will have missed it. Daft and illogical but then maybe that is what we are, in a way.

I parked the car on the only available patch of grass verge that was left, well off the narrow lane to avoid blocking any tractors and gathered myself and my birding equipment together. Camera, bins and scope, all present and correct. Wallet and phone. I was having to think slowly and methodically due to tiredness whilst, with only partial success, restraining my growing excitement. Remember to lock the car. I headed for the wooden stile in the hedge that led into the field and over which anxious birders were at this moment clambering. My turn came and on entering the field I found, about fifty metres up the sloping field, well over a hundred birders ranged in a long line as if awaiting an order to march forward. Bins, scopes, cameras of all shapes and sizes fronted a line of predominantly green, khaki and black clothed men and refreshingly, it has to be said, a few ladies. There were inevitably some extroverts in bright colours. Everyone was intently looking across at a straggly unremarkable hedge running between the edge of the field and the lane behind it. 

The falcon was perched in the hedge just below the left telephone pole

Twitchers on parade
I arrived to stand next to the first two birders in the line and uttered the immortal words. 

'Is it showing?'

Fellow twitchers will know that the first priority is to see the bird by whatever is the quickest means possible and in finest twitcher protocol the two birders offered me a view of the falcon through their already set up scopes. I looked and I saw and I relaxed. Done it!  The two birders smiled knowingly. Now I could enjoy and admire the falcon for as long as I liked or for as long as it remained in view. I took a few photos and began to unwind.

The Amur Falcon was perched near the top of an Elder, on the sheltered side of the hedge that ran along the edge of the field and was about fifty metres distant. It looked tired and dishevelled, sitting with head hunched into its feathers and occasionally closing its eyes. I noticed that on the other side of the hedge birders  were also looking at it from the lane.They seemed closer to the falcon than we were in the field but apparently they could only see the back of the falcon whereas from the field we could see it fully side on.

At intervals, slowly, like an inexorable tide, the line of birders I was part of  commenced to advance towards the falcon, getting closer but not that close that the falcon would be disturbed.These advances happened several times by some sort of mutual, unspoken consent. Eventually, again by unspoken agreement, the advances stopped as it was decided that enough was enough and no further encroachment was to be attempted. Everyone settled down to look at the falcon through their scopes and/or take as many photos as they wanted.The falcon was still a little distant for my lens but the images I got were just about adequate.

The bird itself was untroubled and relaxed, just as we were, now we had seen it, and each birder  did his or her own thing, admiring it, commenting on its state of health and then in my case just standing and enjoying the moment of redemption and catharsis. In situations like this a benign, all encompassing sense of well being and camaraderie descends on the assembled throng.  Everyone is in a good place and happy with life. Each of us had gambled, thrown the metaphorical dice and for once won. Many like me had come long distances, Newcastle, Coventry, Northampton, Hull and London - were all mentioned this morning. Others were local  but we are all as one, conjoined in our mutual delight at having seen a very rare bird that the odds suggested we would fail to do.

As I mentioned, worries about the falcon's state of health were forming the basis of discussion amongst us but after some time watching it I realised that there was nothing wrong with it. It was still early in the morning, just after seven am and this falcon feeds on large insects such as dragonflies and the like, but there would not be any around at the moment as there was a slight chill to the air. The falcon was I felt, waiting until the sun came out, the air warmed and insect life took to the wing. It regurgitated at least three pellets whilst I watched so it had obviously fed well the previous day or less likely, earlier this morning.

In size it was similar to a Kestrel and overall appeared as a compact small falcon with long wings. Its plumage was pleasing on the eye being, predominantly grey above with darker barrings, a Hobby like face pattern of black and white and a grey crown. Its underparts were white, profusely streaked and barred with black. A circle of  bare orange skin surrounded its eye and its cere was also a similar bright orange. Its legs and feet were an even brighter reddish orange. The moult of this falcon as with so many raptors is complicated and prolonged. and the upperparts of this female seemed to consist partly of newer pure grey second year feathers while still retaining some browner older first year wing feathers.The tail was grey with horizontal  bands of darker grey and its underwings were white, barred with fine grey lines.

Amur Falcons are confusable with the  similar Red footed Falcon which strays to  Britain on a more regular basis. The main difference between the females of the two species being the female Amur Falcon does not have a buff ginger crown but is grey and there are broad chevrons of black on the rear flanks of female Amur Falcons whereas on Red footed Falcons there are streaks.

I alternated between looking at the falcon through my scope and taking photos with  my camera. Several people I knew came and went which always happens at gatherings like this. We only ever meet at these random twitches but it becomes quite a social occasion and often new friends are made as well. We are united by our mutual interest and obsession and often we have shared experiences together before when seeing, or indeed not seeing, other rare birds in various parts of Britain, and it is a pleasant way to spend one's time looking at the latest rare bird whilst reminiscing and catching up on each other's exploits and travels.

Some who were here today had taken quite a risk. One birder I knew from a previous twitch had to make a call to his work from the middle of the field while everyone around kept quiet, explaining to his boss he was sick and would not be in today and I am sure he was not alone, this being a weekday. My phone pinged. It was Justin sending me a text asking if I had gone for the falcon. I replied I was currently watching it.

Geoff,  the only other Oxonbirder to make it to Cornwall this morning, was standing further down the line. We had a brief chat and then I left the field to try some views of the falcon from the lane. It was a tight squeeze in the narrow lane but you could get closer to the falcon although it was silhouetted against the sky and made photography difficult. Cars also came down the lane necessitating every birder to hastily  make for the verge carrying scopes and tripods but everything was generally genial with the locals. I took some photos here and then the falcon flew down and out of sight. A Quail called briefly from the field behind but no one seemed to notice

The falcon flew to another perch in the hedge and was still out of view. I retreated back to the field where it was easier to see and watched as it occasionally moved  to another perch. As the early morning wore on and the sun broke through the clouds it was definitely becoming perkier and more interested in its surroundings, moving its head to follow passing insects and even  having a brief preen.

If it remains until tomorrow, Saturday, there will be a vast crowd coming to see it but that should not pose a problem The field we were viewing the falcon from was commodious  and apart from a herd of cows and birders was empty and could accommodate as many birders as were likely to turn up.The restricted parking, however, would be another matter  in the narrow lanes around about.

I had been watching the falcon for two hours and now considered I had seen enough. It felt like most of the morning had passed but my i-phone told me it was only nine am.

So another major twitch came to a happy and fulfilling end. The long drive home would now be far less daunting.

Sadly the Amur Falcon did not remain until Saturday much to the disappointment of many who planned to come and see it. After feeding on dragonflies for a brief spell the falcon flew off towards Nanjizal at 0920 and was last seen, briefly at 1103, when it rose high in the sky and headed off north and has not been seen again. Consequently there are still many who are yet to see an Amur Falcon in Britain. I estimate that approximately two hundred birders saw this Amur Falcon before it flew off.

The falcon was found again on 13th July at St Genny's near Boscastle although the identification was unconfirmed.

It was however positively identified on 17th July when it was seen in the St Buryan area before moving to Crows-an-Wra in the evening. This gave twitchers who had missed it on 7th July and were quick off the mark the opportunity to see it but to the frustration of the many that travelled overnight it was nowhere to be found the next day and has not been seen since.

Amur Falcon Facts

Amur Falcons were once considered to be a sub species of Red-footed Falcon and called Eastern Red footed Falcon but are now regarded as a species in their own right.

They breed in southeast Siberia, northern Mongolia and parts of North Korea and in autumn migrate on a broad front, in large flocks, across India and Sri Lanka and then over the Indian Ocean to their wintering areas in southeastern Africa. Their total population is estimated to be over 1,000,000 birds. On their 11,000km migration they are said to coincide their migration in order to catch and eat similarly migrating dragonflies whilst making their phenomenal five and a half day crossing of the Indian Ocean. Less is known about their return migration to breed in Asia and Siberia but it is thought they avoid the long sea crossing and migrate along the East African and Arabian coasts. 

Vagrants have been recorded from Italy, Sweden, St Helena and Britain.

In 2012 an estimated 120,000-140,000 were trapped and killed in Nagaland, India, creating an international outcry and the Indian Government took measures to stop this slaughter with the result that none were killed in 2013.

I have also seen this falcon on a friend's farm in eastern Zimbabwe, where a flock of over a hundred females were present in November. I have also found them frequenting the high rise Harare Hilton, flying around the top of the building catching insects.


  1. Incredible, but you are mad, thank goodness ! as I am able to get wonderful secondhand birding from the comfort of my sitting room. The Feather.

  2. Thanks Barry. It was a gamble but for once it paid off.
    Hope all is well with you and yours
    Best wishes

  3. Brilliant account of a brilliant twitch! I aspire to your dizzying heights of writing but doubt I'll ever get near to your level!

  4. Thank you kindly Nick
    All the best

  5. Great story Ewan know the feeling well! Nowadays its butterflies check out my site any comments appereciated. Might see you on the next Norfolk twitch. Regards Brian Hicks

  6. Thanks Brian and will certainly have a look at your blog
    Best wishes