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Russet Rapture – Foxy Falcon Birding – Finding a First

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Or whatever you want to call that near perfect euphoria?

You know the score, the “M.M.MEGA” drill : a carefully nonchalant sms msg such as this one, from JW, Anabel Harries and young Frank Christopher on ‘Lark Plains’ to Neil Baker sent at 10.15 on Wednesday morning, March 8, 2006.

Fox Kestrel catching giant dung beetles in flight, magic!

And those immediately subsequent cell phone exchanges regarding the risk of causing another birder cardio-vascular irregularity – herewith please find Annabel’s excellent hand-held record shot of the bird and a brief tale of a russet tail.

We found the bird entirely by chance, how else? Mid cloudy morning on the outermost outwash fan of Mount Meru. I had decided that we should undertake what I felt sure would be a ‘negative registration transect’ for Beesley’s Lark in the northeast sector of the Osugat plain. So we set off from the northern track that crosses the plain walking southwards three abreast, Breton spaniel at heel, in the general direction of Momella and Mount Meru.  As anticipated there were very few larks of any species on the eroded and close-cropped tussock sward of this sector.  A couple of, post-cyclone rains, ubiquitous dun-coloured Athi Short-toed Larks fluttered-up ahead of us, one even rose heavenwards to provide some faltering song, a very small number of itinerant Fischer’s Sparrow-larks (ca 10) were tracking westward across our path into the open plain. Nothing at all to compare with the symphony of five larks enjoyed only an hour earlier in the western sector.

After a few minutes trudge yields one male Montagu’s Harrier, two Temminck’s Coursers and two Common Kestrels I notice a falcon shape rise from the ground 200 metres or so directly ahead of us, fly fast and low to the right then body-twist to neatly catch something small in mid-air. Up go the bins, and awareness goes into that million year old, adrenalin-fueled ‘wild image playback mode’ that some of us just know and love: flash memory comparison. “Wing pattern like a Grasshopper Buzzard , White-eyed Kestrel body shape maybe, but that colour? Overall richer than a Brahminy Kite and that full paddle of a tail, it glows richly redder than on any Red Kite.”

After a conscious inhalation I knew that such a slim, red and acrobatic falcon here in Africa must surely be Fox Kestrel, distant memories hazily recollected from the Sudanese border of Ethiopia on Christmas Day 1993.

However, we must completely eliminate the possibility of White-eyed which, there being an arguably resident pair on the plain, is just a tad more likely at this spot.

We walked on toward the bird’s position, it had dropped into a broad ‘furrow of dead ground’. Gradually we got closer and Anabel started taking some long range record shots. The bird would not allow a close approach but by mingling into a large and fairly fast moving mass of mammals; two hundred piebald sheep, two Somali donkeys and two little shepherd boys, who were all closing from our right; heading in the same direction straight toward the kestrel – we were able to get a good bit closer and Anabel secured a few essential images.

Over a period of perhaps one hour the bird mostly perched on the sparsely grassed ground, scanning attentively this way and that, yet revealing little more than head and shoulders. Intermittently it would rise to fly on ‘beautifully elasticized wings’ low over the sward before executing a neat sideways flick to grab and dispatch a cruising dung beetle. It would then alight delicately on the ground and consume whatever was required of the beetle.

Its incredibly rich colouration was a sight to behold. In particular the slightly graduated tail, the rump and mantle were a glowing russet red in the neutral light of that cloudy morning. At rest the blackish primaries contrasted very markedly with the rest of the bird. We tried hard to establish iris colour but could say only that they appeared warmish, definitely not white, maybe yellowish-brown. The feet were yellow. In flight the bird was more than a joy to watch; the pale, almost translucent, lightly barred panel in the spread primaries was conspicuous, especially pale when seen from below or when the bird executed a sharp turn to snatch a beetle.

After being chivvied along ahead of the grazing sheep for some fifteen minutes the bird began back-tracking, moving little by little northwards toward the main track.  Eventually it took off, rose higher on deep downward strokes the fifth or sixth of which was somehow interrupted to give the accelerating flight a very distinctive manner. After achieving the desired altitude or thermal position it circled buoyantly into the now clearing sky.

It was then in company with two out of a group of seven or so soaring Common Kestrels who had been, somewhat clumsily, diving earthwards to catch dung beetles. When last seen it was drifting slowly westwards at a height of maybe 200 metres.

All in all: one of those absolutely superb breaks that just make it all worthwhile.

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