Wednesday 15 May 2019

Red-footed Falcon at Thorne Moors

I'm pretty rubbish at finding rare birds. I've been birding for 15 years properly more or less and have a grand total of zero rare birds found but recently I have been turning up the odd county rarity both home and away with a couple of accepted Rough-legged Buzzards in Northumberland and Yorkshire, an American Golden Plover in Northumberland, Great White Egret in Nottinghamshire, Caspian Gull, Bee-eater and Leach's petrel in Somerset, Crane in Lincolnshire and a few more. Nothing earth shattering there but I really enjoy looking and sometimes I get a stupid idea about a bird and poof it appears. It happened for the Rough-legged Buzzard at Barmston and it happened again for the AGP at St Mary's Island. I thought the conditions and timing all looked good for the species and I was tuned in and expecting to find them. It happened again last week. I went to Thorne Moors looking for Red-footed Falcon. I was fortunate in that I had an afternoon of free time as I couldnt get back from a course to set up the laptop and my wife and kids were out with a friend so I could utilise the warmth of the late afternoon sun that was heating it up to 18c after a misty, murky start.

Tim Ward's shot shows exactly how I saw this bird initially.
I knew that the first Hobbys should be in at Thorne in a pre-breeding aggregation and that these would be concentrated by the fresh hatches of insects given the cool, early conditions. Thorne is a classic Red-foot location but the date, 30th April, was perhaps a week early. The air-flow was from the south and I marched to the middle of the moor watching a lanky looking ringtail harrier fold-up and dive from a couple of hundred meters up. Its jizz screamed Monty's but there was a significant heat haze and it was perhaps 1km away so a brief view wasn't going to go anywhere in terms of firming up species. A Red Kite ambled over - these guys seem to be everywhere now. Underfoot I disturbed a large male Adder which was foraging and shot off into the undergrowth. Marsh Harriers and Hobbys were obvious across the moor as I made for the picnic bench, north of the watchpoint, with at least half a dozen of each on view most of the time.

Another shot from Tim Ward showing the slightly blunt winged appearance
Watching the Hobbys I started checking them for Red-foots but the strong lighting made everything look dark underneath. I had 15, 16 no...20 Hobby in the air at the same time. Everywhere, high, low, in singles, pairs and loose groups. It was humming with them after a massive hatch of Four-spotted Chasers and Large Red Damselflies. Two probable Swifts were just too high to be sure they were Hobbys. Everytime I scanned with the scope more falcons were behind the ones I was locking on to. A loose group of half a dozen birds started hawking low-down infront of me. I noticed one looked a little smaller with gleaming white patches on the inner primaries of the upperwing. Watching it, it worked in a more relaxed way with less aggressive hawking behaviour and generally flew lower at a more consistent height. It came a little closer and my anticipation grew. It banked and was slatey blue-grey underneath. An adult male Red-footed Falcon no less. This was exactly as I imagined it but what I hadn't anticipated was quite how bright and obvious those upperwing flashes would be.

Not obviously dark underneath when strongly lit
Over the next 90 minutes it hawked to within 50 meters, remaining fairly loyal to the loose group of birds. I was joined 15 minutes after I found it by David Slack. It was great for someone to corroborate the sighting as I had forgotten my camera and try as I might, I failed to phonescope the bird in flight. I got lots of shots of fresh air and the odd blurry Hobby as I latched onto the wrong bird. Tim Ward very kindly let me use his shots from the following day here and there are photos out there on Graham Catley's blog:

Nb - whilst I was looking at the bird I was talking to David about features I was seeing and he was agreeing yet we realised we were looking in different directions. Neither of us saw two birds simultaneously but two adult males were seen together on 12th May which at the time of writing is the final sighting.

How birds and brains become mutually exclusive

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