Monday 30 May 2022

An Eleonora's Falcon in Kent 28th May 2022

Up to now it has been a singularly unremarkable Spring for rare birds arriving in Britain. Un-beknown to me or anyone else, all that was about to change and how!

Having just completed my daily circuit of Farmoor Reservoir, it was noon on Thursday and I was sitting in the cafe enjoying a coffee and chat with Phil when my phone rang. It was Mark.

You heard about the Eleonora's in Kent?

Err No?

It's at Stodmarsh. Drive to mine and we can be there in four hours.There will be plenty of time as it does not get datk until ten. I'll drive.

Mark hung up before I could answer.

Somewhat taken aback I assimilated this startling news and the concept of turning my planned day on its head and driving to Mark's house in Bedfordshire forthwith. I  decided to take up his offer.

I made my excuses to Phil and was on the road to Mark's five minutes later, after texting an explanation to my wife who is long accustomed to such behaviour.

Eleonora's Falcon is a very rare bird in Britain. A true 'mega' that has been recorded only seven times before and one that does not hang around, as all previous records have involved birds seen only on the day of discovery. You have to go immediately or just forget it. This has bestowed on the falcon a somewhat iconic status in birding circles.

Eleonora's Falcons  breed on islands in the Mediterranean, especially those in Greece, which holds two thirds of the population, and are also found on the Canary Islands as well as off the coast of Spain and Morocco. Their winter homes are in Madagascar, surrounding islands in the southern Indian Ocean and coastal southeast Africa.

Similar in plumage to a Hobby, they come in two colour morphs, pale and dark.The bird found today being a pale morph. They are a tad larger than a Hobby, with longer wings and tail, browner upperparts, are more buff on their streaked underparts and their flight, when not hunting is more languid, although they utilise the acrobatic, high speed flying skills and hunting methods of a Hobby. Dragonflies and small birds are their exclusive diet, both of which are caught on the wing and in the case of dragonflies often also eaten while still flying. They breed colonially and delay breeding to coincide with the autumn migration of small passerines which are intercepted as they approach the falcon's colonial breeding cliffs. Uniquely, some of the small birds captured are kept alive, have their flight feathers broken off and are imprisoned in cracks in the breeding cliffs, the falcon returning, often  days later, to kill the bird and feed it to its young.

This latest individual had been photographed earlier in the day over Restharrow Scrape at Sandwich Bay in Kent. Originally thought to be a Hobby, it was re-identified later that day, from the photographs taken, as a much rarer Eleonora's Falcon. Initially declared an adult male, it was  later confirmed by Dick Forsman, a noted raptor expert, to be a second summer female (i.e. 3 years old). 

Four hours later, having, at some cost to our equanimity, endured the nightmare traffic around the M25 and over the Dartford Crossing, we were stood on a minor road overlooking a valley and large lake at Stodmarsh, where the falcon had last been seen to fly. We were joined by Les and Adrian, two other birding pals. Needless to say we did not see the falcon and I returned home more than a little chastened from the experience.

Mark was convinced the falcon would be re-found tomorrow but I was equally convinced it would not. 

Friday came, and back in the cafe at Farmoor, I was sitting with Phil and Chloe preparatory to our regular amble around the reservoir. It was 1030am and Phil had already asked if I had  seen the falcon yesterday and I had informed him of my failure, in mitigation explaining how all the odds were against my seeing it anyway and so it had proved.

My phone then rang. I knew who it was.

It's been re-found at Worth Marsh in Kent and is showing well, perched in a tree. Get to mine as soon as possible and I'll drive.

Tired and not a little fed up after yesterday's futile effort at seeing the falcon I was distinctly unenthusiastic about making yet another tedious hour and half journey to Mark's  and then another three hour drive in the traffic hell that motorways become on a Friday afternoon. I judged we would not be at Worth Marsh until three or four in the afternoon.

For some minutes I dithered. Phil sensibly advised me to just say no, but it was an Eleonora's Falcon after all and Mark was very insistent. The fact he was prepared to drive decided it.

Once again I bade farewell to an amused Phil and Chloe. Bought a piece of cake from the cafe to sustain  me on the journey to Mark's and headed off into a sunny day for yet another attempt at twitching glory.

The drive to Worth Marsh in Kent was predictably fraught. Having made it to Mark's we then set off into slow moving and then static traffic that is the norm for motorways these days.The inevitable delay due to a crash on the M25, followed by the sheer volume of cars heading for the Channel Tunnel brought frustration and anxiety in equal measure. Somehow we managed to avoid the worst whilst all the while receiving excited updates from fellow birders, telling us how well the falcon was showing.

Then news came through that it had not been seen for over half an hour. Had it flown off? Were we going to fail again? My heart sank as we were still an hour from our destination. We carried on and then news came that it was still present and showing well. From despondency to enthusiasm takes but a moment and we drove on, charged with renewed enthusiasm and anticipation.

Finally we arrived at our destination, the narrow Jubilee Road, which lies next to Worth Marsh and there we parked amongst a long line of birder's cars, crammed partially on and off the pavement. A large bus struggled for some while to pass the cars further down but we had parked well into the side and fortunately there was no problem with us and the bus. I felt the residents of Jubilee Road would not be pleased about this invasion of birders but hoped they would understand as it was only going to be a temporary inonvenience for them.

We walked down the road to find a rough track on our right leading out to Worth Marsh, lately taken over by the RSPB. Returning birders brought re-assuring news and told us the falcon was showing well and pointed to the Great Wood, a half mile distant, which was where the falcon could be seen best.

The walk out to the wood, our heads buzzing with nervous excitement, was to an intermittent chorus of rasping and very loud croaks from Marsh Frogs, hidden in the nearby ditches. We arrived in front of  a gate at the end of the wood that prevented further access to a field containing a large cattle pen and with a sign on the gate informing us that the field was a 'no go' conservation area. There was a reasonably large crowd here but not as many as I had anticipated and there would be no problem viewing the falcon as it would be flying and therefore above us and no one would  have their view obstructed.

We were told by other birders the falcon had been showing incredibly well earlier, flying above the heads of the assembled throng, but then had disappeared over the wood although would surely return, as this is what had previously happened during the day.

We stood and waited for it to re-appear. Half an hour later, with no sign, my anxiety levels were rising rapidly. It's ridiculous but this is what happens. The tension gets to you. The mindless chatter from other birders around you becomes increasingly annoying. It's not anyone's fault but tiredness, anxiety and frustration coalesce and do nothing to help one to remain sanguine. An hour had now passed. I had seen a Hobby, and a couple of Cuckoos, plus a lot of Wood Pigeons and corvids flying out of the wood, the emergence from the wood of the latter prompting an instinctive desire to shout 'there it is' only to be quickly suppressed before you end up looking foolish.

Suddenly another dark bird emerged from the wood. Angular and smaller than any pigeon or crow. A true thoroughbred. The Eleonora's Falcon!

It was visible for just a few seconds as it flew out low, over the field and then back to the side of the wood where it was invisible from our viewpoint. In that all too brief time I noted its brownish upperparts, buff  breast and long pointed wings.There was time for nothing more.

Like shrugging off a loose coat, the negative feelings I was enduring fell to the metaphorical floor with the knowledge I had finally seen this almost mythical bird. I rested content amongst my fellow birders. We were as one and set about anticipating its next appearance.

That took some time and when it came was an even briefer view than before. As time passed it was realised the falcon was perched on the edge of the wood and although not visible from our position, it could however be viewed  more distantly from across a field to our right. Others were also looking at it from the Pinnock Wall that ran directly opposite the wood, separated from the wood by a field of cows.

Myself, Mark and Adrian remained at the gate as we were wanting to photo the falcon but for some hours we were frustrated. Geoff, a fellow Oxonbirder, found a rare, immature Scarce Chaser sunning itself on a nearby bush which provided a temporary reprieve from boredom.

Immature male Scarce Chaser

The falcon had obviously dined well on dragonflies and was in no hurry to leave its perch but eventually it slowly flew across the field of cows to pitch into a small willow by the Pinnock Wall. A collective groan came from those of us by the gate, as the birders over there would be getting absolutely brilliant views of it but that is how it is sometimes. It remained there for a while and obviously still had no desire to chase anymore dragonflies.

We got some distant record shots but then it moved further away to where the late afternoon sun still shone on the fields and we decided to go and watch it there, by taking the narrow road into Worth Village and then walking further along the road to view it sat distantly on a post in a cornfield.

Having found a parking spot, which was no easy matter, we watched the bird through telescopes but it was very distant and again inclined to do nothing but sit on its post in the company of two Hobbies. Frankly, a little bored, we went in search of a female Red footed Falcon that was perched on telephone wires crossing another vast field of ripening corn. Again it was a little distant but giving good enough views through a scope. 

We stood around in the evening sunshine with yellow water lilies adorning the channels of clear water bisecting this strange flat landscape, a combination of monoculture and areas of natural wildness that brought a pleasant, reflective ambience and sense of peace and quiet after the rather more frenetic hours of twitching that had gone before.

Mark, myself and Adrian dicussed whether to stay here overnight but the nearest accommodation in Ramsgate was too expensive and there was nothing else available. The local pub by this time had stopped serving food and in the end we resolved to stay overnight at Adrian's, an hour's drive away in Essex and return the next morning.

Adrian ordered a curry to be delivered to his home and with a bottle of beer each we ate a proper meal for the first time today. Afterwards I took one sofa, Mark another and we set our phones for a 5am alarm.

So very tired, I slept soundly and it was with a start I rose at the sound of the alarm. After some cornflakes and coffee we set off once more for Worth Marsh. At this time of day the roads were in marked contrast to yesterday's chaos and with no hold ups we arrived on Jubilee Road to find that a field had been set up by the RSPB volunteers for birder's cars to park in, well away from the road. The local residents would be pleased.

The field was already filled with a good number of cars as this was a Saturday and the falcon had already been seen earlier in the morning, so without doubt this bird was going to be very popular and attract many visitors. Today it transpired the falcon was perched in a bush on the far side of the Pinnock Wall near to a railway crossing but was only viewable from a distance.

Arriving at the Great Wood and the gate where we had stood yesterday, it was devoid of birders as everyone had made for the Pinnock Wall. Having seen the falcon yesterday we resolved to remain here as it was sure to return sometime in the morning but not until the day warmed up considerably. 

A cold northerly breeze blew in our faces but the sun was shining and it was still only eight o'clock, so it would presumably warm up as the hours passed and the sun strengthened. A steady  trickle of birders came along the track and I did a good impersonation of a voluntary warden, directing them further along the track that would take them to the Pinnock Wall.

Two hours later and with no sign of the falcon I was getting fractious and bored but I had to stick with it and maintained my position by the wood. In the wet field behind me, on a flooded area, Avocets with small chicks were in a constant state of agitation, joined by the occasional Common Redshank, doubtless with chicks also, their respective alarm calls ringing out over the field.

Another two hours passed and then the falcon finally appeared. Flying fairly low and fast, passing almost overhead, it was on me so quick I hardly had time to focus on it and take some images. Mark did much better!

c Mark

In flight it was obviously larger than a Hobby with longer wings and a distinctive notch in its tail,  not a normal thing but a handy way to identify this individual at long range.

Having flown past me, it circled high over the fields beyond before returning to cruise above the Great Wood. I was now rapidly joined by others until the crowd resembled what it was yesterday afternoon. 

For over an hour we were treated to a spectacular display of consummate flying above the wood, high, sometimes very high, and low, occasionally stooping at incredible speed to seize a dragonfly, then turning and twisting against the blue sky and white clouds, riding on the wind. 

There is however, only so long you can watch something such as this before getting a little complacent, and relaxed birders, having had their fill of the falcon, began greeting one another and resuming old acquaintances, the whole thing becoming quite a social occasion which in itself is a not unpleasant experience. I met casual friends from both past and present, some not seen since long ago.

The falcon meanwhile found a perch at the side of the wood and settled there, its appetite for now obviously satisfied.

c Mark

We had not only been treated to a flying display by the Eleonora's Falcon but an immature female Red footed Falcon also came to join in hunting the high flying dragonflies, as well as a Hobby.Three species of falcon in the summer sky together, hunting dragonflies, who could ask for more and indeed who has seen such a thing before?

First summer female Red footed Falcon

Eurasian Hobby

The best however, was yet to come. In the late afternoon after an abortive two hour search for a very elusive Sardinian Warbler at nearby South Foreland we learnt that the Eleonora's Falcon was showing particularly well in a tree by the Pinnock Wall.

Returning to Worth Village, we found a parking spot and walked down the track to join a huddle of birders watching the falcon sat in a small tree. We were told it would occasionally fly out to hunt a dragonfly but much patience was required. For about half an hour the falcon remained in its tree as the sun faded behind grey clouds and a progressively stronger cold wind blew at our backs. 

A female Red footed Falcon flew at speed behind us, crossing the large marshy field that lay between us and the railway, then returned and perched on top of a distant bush, to be joined there by a Hobby. A male Marsh Harrier flew in the other direction as the land became quiet and the falcon sat in its tree not thirty metres from us.

Suddenly it flew, making a brief circuit in front of us, over the grass. Almost caught by surprise I nearly missed my opportunity to get the flight shots I desired but with more than a little luck I managed to point the camera, focus and get some images. It was over in seconds, the falcon failing to seize its prey and returning to the tree to sit and wait once more.

We too waited, willing it to fly just once more but it never showed signs of moving before the cold wind became intolerable and persuaded us it was time to depart.We were reluctant but felt we had done pretty well and really, in all honesty, we could not have asked for more.

1 comment:

  1. Love it!!! When we visited bro-in-law Paul while he was living in Northern Cyprus back in 2018, one of the highlights was seeing dark & light morph Eleanoras' + hobbies hunting together - especially as I'm a bit in love with falcons! x