Saturday 17 July 2021

The Dragon Slayer of Wiltshire 16th July 2021

A female Red-footed Falcon has been present since the 8th July at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Langford Lakes Nature Reserve which is adjacent to the village of Steeple Langford near Salisbury. It is a first summer female feasting on the abundance of dragonflies at the reserve and seems content to linger like many of these falcons do when they find themselves out of their normal range. Almost all records of this species in Britain are of immature first summer birds which means they are in their second year of life and not ready to breed until the following year. Consequently there is no pressing need to find a mate and raise a family and these stray birds adopt a relaxed attitude and in some cases can tarry for quite some time, as this one has done, now into its eighth day of residence at the reserve.

Red-footed Falcons normally breed from eastern Europe to Mongolia and as far north as the Lena River in eastern Russia. It is a long distance migrant reaching its wintering grounds in south and southwest Africa  in late October. In Spring it arrives in Europe from mid April onwards, numbers peaking in mid May. Vagrants such as the bird at Langdon Lakes are usually seen between late April to early June so the bird at Langdon Lakes is comparatively late.

Its confiding nature has allowed anyone, who has a mind to see it, to get very good views, as evidenced by the large number of images of the diminutive falcon being published on social media. After my success with the Black-browed Albatross in distant Yorkshire, a ninety minute drive from my home to Steeple Langford was a doddle and I swapped memories of rugged coastal cliffs in Yorkshire for the prospect of a more genteel, inland pastoral scene in Wiltshire.

I had planned to leave for the reserve at 7am on Friday. However, what is for me a reasonably late departure had to be rapidly revised as I became aware that the best views of the falcon were from a hide which I surmised would get extremely crowded very quickly, as everyone now has a camera and would want to photograph this charismatic species.

This necessitated a change of plan overnight and I departed my house much earlier, at 4.30am, in an already light and pleasantly warm morning. Needless to say I encountered few other road users as I wound my way southwest through pleasant rural countryside and across three counties, much of the land at this early hour shrouded in low lying mist which would soon burn off once the sun broke the horizon.

I passed the iconic World Heritage site of Stonehenge, the stones looking mysterious and atmospheric in the morning mist and then turned off the notorious traffic congested A303 (but not at this hour) and after a few miles reached Steeple Langford and drove down the appropriately named Duck Street which led to  the reserve.

My plan on leaving early had worked as there were only two other cars in the reserve's car park when I arrived. It was 6am as I wandered down a long track between two lakes, serenaded by bird song and revitalised, after my drive by the freshness of the morning on what was promising to be a day of sunshine and hot temperatures.

I turned left and then right and after a short way came to the Meadow Hide on my left, which overlooks a small lake containing four artificial scrapes, two of which had what looked like substantial dead branches jutting out of them.Whether these were specifically for the falcon to perch on or whether they were a permanent fixture I do not know but they looked ideal for attracting the falcon.

The small lake and four scrapes with the falcon's favourite perching post visible on the scrape back left

I took my place in the hide, on a hard bench, amongst four other birders/photographers, all of us ranged behind the viewing slats and suitably socially distanced. I was, if you like, in the equivalent of the front row of the stalls. The prime position with an uninterrupted view out over the small lake to the scrapes and two perches. No one spoke. It was too early and we all knew it was going to be a long wait before the falcon put in an appearance. It would not become active until the dragonflies roused themselves and they were not going to stir until the morning air warmed sufficiently.

Settled on my bench I looked out to the scrapes and a small wader ran around the edges of one. It was a Green Sandpiper and a little later another sandpiper came into view, this time a Common Sandpiper. A  couple of Lapwing, a Grey Heron and some Canada Geese were the only additional occupiers of the lake.

Common Sandpiper

And that was about it for the subsequent two hours.The hide rapidly filled up with both birders and photographers, the latter often conspicuously without bins and soon it was standing room only with rows of birders ranged behind those of us who had managed to rise early enough to get the best vantage points in the hide. The noise levels rose accordingly as conversations broke out and the inevitable stories of past birding exploits were recounted to a captive audience, whether they wished to hear them or not. Everyone could see out to the lake and its scrapes so there was no rancour as yet more people arrived. I put on a mask, as did others, in case social distancing was forgotten. Just as well, for later in the morning a somewhat obnoxious lady photographer was to get  mildly confrontational when her lack of mask. while in too close proximity to another birder, was queried by the man in question.

A Barn Owl, flying distantly over fields beyond the lake prompted a volley of camera clicks from within the hide but it was way too far for photography and I gathered from the ensuing snippets of conversation that some in the hide lacked much understanding of their equipment's limitations.Not a problem as they were more than happy togging away at anything that moved but I chose to leave the camera  on my lap and to sit in silence and contemplate the world while finding the unforgiving bench becoming increasingly hard and uncomfortable but I dare not leave the hide to stretch my legs as I would lose my place.

Someone behind me came into the hide to advise the falcon was perched very distantly in a tree behind the hide.Some departed to have a look. All of us in the front remained seated. A little later the selfsame person came to advise the falcon was coming closer.

Eventually, at just after nine, a shout of 'incoming!' alerted everyone to the fact the falcon was approaching the hide and would soon be in front of us over the lake. Seconds later a surprisingly small falcon, somewhere between a Merlin and Kestrel in size, greyish brown above and dull buff white below with a  noticeably barred tail and creamy head skimmed low and at high speed across the lake and  onto one of the artificial perches. Cameras were raised in an instant but hopes of any photos were immediately dashed by a crow that flew at the falcon which  unsurprisingly departed from whence it had come.The disappointment and frustration was palpable and dark muttering's about b....y crows were audible from our ranks.

So it was back to waiting and half an hour later there was another cry of 'incoming!' and the falcon re-appeared and this time pitched on the same perch and was allowed to remain there in peace. 

It sat there for a few minutes and then took off, flying low and fast over the water and tried grabbing a dragonfly from the surface of the lake. It failed and returned to the perch, then 
repeated these sorties until it was successful  and had caught at least two dragonflies which appeared to be female Emperor Dragonflies, the insects looking sufficiently large and green in its claws.

The dragonflies were clutched firmly in its bunched orange feet and taken back to the perch to be eaten and I noticed that its tail feathers had become wet and spiky, an effect caused as it dipped its feet down to seize its unsuspecting prey from the water. I speculated that it was preying on ovipositing dragonflies hence its low level flights over the lake.

A few minutes later the falcon departed the way it had come, back around the side of the hide and was gone from view. Local opinion advised it was best to stay put as it would routinely go off elsewhere to hunt but would periodically re-visit the lake.

A reserve warden arrived with a wheelbarrow full of sanitiser and bin bags and asked us all to vacate the hide as he had to disinfect it which was a bit strange.Surely this could have been done out of hours? Uncomplainingly we all trooped out and stood around in the sunshine as he 'cleansed' the hide. What was most galling was the falcon chose to return while we were banished and as none of us had any photos to speak off, some got a little frustrated with the situation but soon we were back in the hide and looking at the lake now annoyingly, devoid of the falcon.

Conversations broke out once more as we waited. A phone with a ridiculously loud rock anthem ring tone prompted some adverse comment from a local birder whose conversation with a colleague up to now had been equally loud. I feared a confrontation but the owner of the phone sheepishly said he had now switched it off. Seconds later - yes you guessed! More apologies and then everyone settled down and most of us concentrated on the matter in hand.

Someone opined that a heron hunting the water's edge on the far side of the lake was out of luck as there were no fish in the lake.The heron promptly stabbed at the water and hauled out a large jack pike which it took in its bill and stalked onto dry land where it swallowed the fish in one gulp.

The next visit by the falcon was more prolonged.It dropped to the edge of the scrape below the perch and proceeded to drink, a prolonged unhurried process, the bird dipping its head to sip the water and then, after each sip, standing as if savouring the water before dipping its bill to the water once more. Back on the perch it flew more sorties over the lake and caught a number of dragonflies before flying to another scrape where it proceeded to walk around on the stony edge chasing a dragonfly but soon gave up and instead had a perfunctory bathe and another drink before flying back to its original perch to preen and then resume its hunting of dragonflies.Every time it moved a fusillade of camera shutter clicks rang out in the hide.

The hide had long since reached its capacity to cater for everyone safely. I became aware of people edging closer behind me and lenses pointing almost over my shoulders.Feeling a little uneasy I decided on waiting for one more visit from the falcon and once it departed I would relinquish my seat to someone behind me. It was quite a long wait but eventually the falcon duly performed as before, repeating its low level attacks over the lake from its favourite perch and occasionally grabbing a dragonfly which it dismembered and ate on the perch. 

The sun outside was warm but it felt chilly in the confines of the hide and I was  glad of my fleece.The falcon sat for a while on its perch, quite a long while in fact, and then dashed out across the lake after a dragonfly which it missed but instead of returning to the perch, as before, kept on going, rising high into the sky, flying up and over the surrounding trees and was gone.

This was my cue to depart. It was noon and I needed to leave as otherwise I would be enduring the snarl of holiday traffic on the A303. Not something to be contemplated with equanimity. 

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