Scenes from a Falcon’s Nest
A scarcely discernible rustle, subtle as the ruffling of chiffon skirts, accelerates my pulse and fires my imagination. But as I peer through the powerful lens I have trained on her boudoir I see that the elegant lady of my attentions is gone. Gone to receive a gift from her mate.
She is no ordinary lady, and the gift no romantic trinket. She and her partner are falcons supreme aerial predators and I am here to photograph them raising their family. This is only the second day of my observations, and the couple are proving to be model parents.
It is spring in the backwoods of the upper Cobb Valley, located deep in the vastness of Kahurangi National Park. Though small birds are chanting their courtship airs and the alpine flowers for which this region is lauded are in the opening throes of a spectacular bloom, late November snows cover large tracts of this South Island wilderness. The flirtatious sound that caught my attention was the faintest fluffing of feathers as a female bush falcon flew from her nest to greet the male bringing food for her and their two tiny chicks.
Shivering in my camouflaged hide, muscles cramped and numb from hours of chilled immobility, I am nonetheless feeling euphoric and extremely privileged. The birds seem to have accepted my presence, and now, alerted by the female’s sudden departure, I concentrate, camera at the ready, on the rapid sequence of events I know is about to be enacted. As I focus on the hungry, three-day-old fluffballs huddled in the nest-scrape five metres away, my mind fills in the unseen details of our surroundings.
The nest site the couple has chosen is of textbook perfection: a shallow scrape in the ground sheltered beneath a large overhanging boulder on a steep, densely forested slope. Leaf litter, mainly beech, lies deep where it has been eddied by blustery winter winds, forming multicoloured drifts against the intense green of moss-laden trunks and carpeting the ground around the nest.
The canopies of the tall beeches merge, dimming the light on the forest floor to dusk proportions so that only a few aspiring saplings and brazen climbers thrive. As a result, the understorey is relatively open and easy to move through. Nearby, a slippery, rock-strewn gully spills snow-melt from the high ridges into the boggy tussock flats of the valley floor. A rotting tree stump and several strategically situated beech branches provide perches from which the pair can survey the area surrounding the nest (below).
Bush falcons-the most widespread of the three races of New Zealand falcon or karearea are highly territorial. Nothing can move within a hundred-metre radius of their nest without notice and subsequent retaliation of the ever-vigilant owners. Their turf, its boundaries known only to neighbouring falcons, encompasses untold hectares of montane bush and valley grasslands, with kilometres of forest margin providing them a hunting ground replete with small birds and mammals such as mice and hares.
It was into this scene that over several weeks I gradually introduced an unobtrusive photographic hide after Golden Bay Department of Conservation officers had discovered the falcons’ nest during an anti-possum campaign in late October 1997. Aware of the need to minimise disturbance of these highly strung birds, my partner, Tin De Roy, and I limited our intrusions to mere minutes every few days as we staked the small, wigwam-shaped blind progressively closer to a vantage point at the base of a huge beech tree.
The timing had worked out perfectly: the first of two brown speckled eggs had hatched on November 24, a few days after our set-up was complete. Tui, roaming the valley in search of flowers to photograph, had decoyed the birds’ attention away from my entering the hide a technique we employed every time I began a vigil. But fooling a sharp-witted, keen-sighted raptor had proved no mean task. During my first day’s watch a stray shaft of afternoon sunlight had backlit my body through the hide’s two layers of fabric, necessitating several modifications before it was again acceptable to our quarry.
Despite my preparedness , I am startled by the female’s speedy return and lack of hesitation as she enters the nest. Landing swiftly with a bedraggled mop of feathers clutched tightly in her talons, the mother falcon quickly transfers the prey to her bill and with a jaunty, bouncing gait hops across a metre of ground to her two chicks . They are so small it is all they can do to lift their heads as they sense her approach.
With all the deftness of a human mother spooning baby food into the uncoordinated mouth of a wobbling infant, she pops shreds of meat feathers and all into the tiny beaks, gulping down larger morsels herself. In less than a minute the feeding is done, and she is cleaning her beak by repeatedly rubbing it through the leaf litter. With their fleshy pink crops now bulging with food, the chicks’ centre of gravity shifts, and both tots flop forward from exhaustion, immediately falling asleep.
Smiling, I watch the mother contentedly shuffling over her young, fluffing her feathers and, with incongruous delicacy, tucking them deeper into the enveloping duvet with her hooked bill . The excitement of feeding over, things will be quiet for a time, and while she dozes all I can do is shake my head, bemused at the lot of a nature photographer. This has been the fourth feeding today, and each has been photographically frustrating, since the mother’s feeding posture has been with her back fairly and squarely to the camera.
There is nothing for it but to wait for another chance: for the father to bring home another kill, and for the mother to perhaps change her stance. I shouldn’t have too long to wait, for the chicks need food regularly.
Falcons are admirable predators. Unlike the more common Australasian harrier, which is often seen scavenging road kill, bush falcons hunt exclusively on the wing by outflying small birds in highspeed chases, stooping vertically to phenomenal speeds that may reach 200 kph and mounting stealthy surprise attacks on 6 unsuspecting prey.
Their efficiency as killers has made P them a target of persecution as pests for their incursions into our human-centredworld. Though offset slightly by both the fragmentation of bush and road cuts that provide rich forest-margin hunting grounds, as well as legal protection since 1970, they have nonetheless lost huge tracts of prime habitat since the mass clearance of lowland forests. As a result, few people have had the opportunity to observe wild falcons at close quarters. The closest most people come to a falcon is when they pull out a $20 bill: the karearea greets them on the reverse side.
Here in the Cobb Valley, feeling very much a guest in their forest home (above), I am able to witness the finer aspects of falconness.
A week passes and the snows melt, yet a chill wind is still blowing through the forest, stripping away all vestiges of cosiness from my observation cocoon. A gentle but persistent rain has just shorted out one of my flash units and is causing my prime lens to fog in the dank morning air.
The chicks healthy, robust and warm in their grey down suits are now 10 and 11 days old, and frequently bicker and prod each other with their developing bills (below). Consistent feedings have allowed the second one to catch up with his sibling, and though he is still slightly smaller, and will be until after fledging time, the age difference is less apparent.
Their mother, relieved of the need for constant brooding of her restless duo, occasionally leaves the nest for 15- or 20-minute intervals. In fact, she can now barely cover them both with her breast feathers. It won’t be long until their food requirements necessitate her full-time hunting. Until now the male has been providing all the food for the family, bringing prey to favourite treetop perches and, in intimate ceremonies hidden from my restricted view, passing it to his lady, who then comes down to feed it to the chicks. Only twice have I seen the smaller male attend the nest to brood the young I presume while the female was hunting and he looked uncomfortable and restless!
My ear has become attuned to the almost inaudibly high-pitched, yet softly uttered, greeting sounds between the pair that heralds an imminent feeding a sharp contrast to the screeching kekkek-kek of contact and attack calls. The chicks, of course, are cued in to this sound too, and I can see their eagerness as they watch for mother’s imminent delivery.
Despite the drizzle, the light is good, and I am ready to capture the delivery of the prey. As I strain to keep my eye to the viewfinder and my fingers poised on the shutter release, my weight shifts slightly on the folding camp stool I have securely staked into the hillside for stability.
With the distressing, slow-motion realisation with which cartoon characters fall over a cliff edge, I am abruptly slammed against the tree trunk when the pegs give way in the sodden earth, collapsing my tottering stool.
Quickly, I regain my stance behind the camera just in time to see mother arrive with the remains of another bird. Gulping down great beakfuls, the chicks are fair beaming with crops full of tucker. They stretch, each alternately flexing long, scrawny legs and developing talons, and flapping stubby, still rubbery wings, and seem to grow a full centimetre in the process.
Midsummer day has arrived, and it is just under two months since the falcons laid their first egg and committed themselves to the season’s breeding efforts. The chicks, barely fourweeks old, are gangly-legged and growing pin-feathers, curious about their surroundings and beginning to look towards horizons beyond the immediate confines of the nest (below).
Bellbirds, trilling their liquid notes in the treetops and busy with their own nesting schedules, are oblivious to the inquisitive stares from the young falcons. It is exciting to witness such a healthy, happy family scene, as so many falcon nests fail. Successful breeding in any given year is far from assured, since a variety of conditions have to be just right. Despite a shortage of reliable field data, it is feared that the New Zealand population as a whole is still declining.
Although it is hard to identify the small birds that the hunting falcons bring to the nest, my impression is that the majority are introduced European species that have thrived in New Zealand’s modified habitats. Feedings are frequent-I observed nine in one day-and unveil new aspects of the falcons’ adaptable hunting tactics.
I twice watched a brace of nestlings, perhaps blackbirds, served in rapid succession, suggesting a patient watch-and-wait hunting technique by the falcons as the busy songbirds, repeatedly ferrying worms and grubs to their nest, unsuspectingly disclosed its location in the dense underbrush. For the falcons, it seemed as easy as picking up groceries from the supermarket.
As time goes by, the mother falcon no longer lingers to feed her offspring morsel by morsel, leaving them to work out how to deal with the prey in the manner she has so often demonstrated.
It is three days now before year’s end, and as warm, dappled green sunlight filters through the forest canopy casting dancing shadows over the empty nest site, I realise that this will be my last session in the hide. Between meals the two youngsters are off exploring, scurrying around on the forest Aoor while Aapping developing wings, exercising talons by grabbing at imaginary foes in the leaflitter, more eager than ever to learn about their expanding realm.
Another week and they will be taking to the air. Following their parents, they will be shown the tricks of the falcon’s trade, and have their prey delivered on the wing: in-air drops to be caught free-falling or passed talon to talon. They will practise mock attacks on branches and fluttering leaves, or dive-bomb each other, the target flipping upside-down and fending off his attacker in feigned battle. With their new-found skills, and a little luck, the chicks will be independent by the end of summer, fully fledged, sleek-feathered, capable hunters of the forest.
But right now they seem to be experiencing the avian equivalent of an adolescent’s ungrateful age, their down scraggly and dishevelled where real feathers are emerging, with over-proportioned limbs and a naivety of expression. I catch occasional fleeting glimpses of their antics and see them run around excitedly with whole prey, mastering the knack of holding it down with their talons to feed. Both adults are employed full-time in providing food, yet apart from hearing the occasional questioning call from somewhere aloft, I see neither of them during their brief landings.
My last sighting is of a chick caught in a rare shaft of sunlight piercing through to the forest floor. Sitting back on his haunches, he is peering intently through the trees, alert, familiarising himself with the ways of the forest, surveying his future domain.
Hiking out of the valley late that afternoon I catch sight of a falcon determinedly patrolling the treetops, and hazard a guess that it is the male I’ve photographed. A group of trampers passes me on the track, heads down, intent on reaching the next but before nightfall. In my new-found enthusiasm for these forest denizens I point out the flying raptor. “Oh, I didn’t know they were supposed to be up here,” was one comment as the bird disappeared into the greenery, followed by an exclamation: “That’s the first one I’ve ever seen!”
Given space, and a little understanding, falcons will continue to fly over our forests and grasslands,and perhaps more people will become familiar with this legendary hunter of the skies.