Category Archives: Falcons

The Food Pass

Laila wrote in one of her recent entries that we witnessed the rare Ovampo Sparrowhawk make a “food pass” in mid air. Food passes are essential when it comes to one mate giving food to another or to one of its young. But within a pair they serve a purpose in themselves. For example: When a pair need to maintain their bond at the onset of the breeding season, the male will dash off and get food, prepare it, and race back to present it to the female. In some species food is presented by either sex to the other throughout the year in an amicable way. Large eagles like Crowned Eagles stay together all year round and share their meals. We witnessed a male Pygmy Falcon in Tsavo West make a fast slanting dash from his dead tree across the road and smack into a grass tussock. He emerged quickly with something quite big in his talons and took off at top speed to a group of trees a few hundred meters away. We followed and sure enough we saw him present it to his mate and shortly afterward they mated. Off he went to go and see if he could find more! The presentation between Pygmy Falcons is usually bill to bill, accompanied by a lot of appeasement calls to reassure each party that nothing violent was about to happen. It is fairly obviously a demonstration to the female that the male is a grand food provider and will look after her and their young.

Aerial air-to-air passes of food often take place among those species of raptors that are heftily armed and killers of avian prey. So it occurs more often within large falcons and accipiters (Sparrowhawks and Goshawks). It is as though they do not want to make any contact. The female can be twice the male’s weight and in the confusion of being handed food she might cause harm. Indeed the act of mating in these species is a well orchestrated business with every sign being made before-hand to calm what could be a dangerous mission. The Ovampo Sparrowhawk food pass was just missed being captured on the camera although Laila got both the adult female and male neatly posed in a dead tree and in mid air. The female had sat on the nest all morning and had flown off her nest when the male came in calling gently. She flew to a dead tree first. We had half an hour previously seen the male zip over our heads after a small bird. The bird put into cover high in the tree canopy and the male poked about until out it flew to be chased out of sight. The male seemed committed and we both felt a bit sorry for the small bird, who may well have been the plucked and headless morsel presented to the female. In short he flew in, flipped over and threw out the food, which was snatched, dropped and caught. The food pass was so dramatic that I doodled a pen and ink drawing so as to capture the moment.

ovampo food pass
Drawing of food pass

I was in Hell’s Gate National Park this morning. Oddly for this time of year I saw a lot of pre-nesting behaviour. The Verreaux’s Eagle pair were nest building, when I would have expected them to have a large chick. I saw Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures on large chicks however, a little more developed than at other colonies. The Augur Buzzards had had a few chicks on the wing but it looked like a few pairs had smaller young. On my way out I saw a pair of Lanner Falcons. The male was dashing about at high speed and the female kept flying underneath him and presenting her feet, as did he. I assumed he was passing food, but looking at the photographs I saw he had nothing. Yet this dry run was repeated time after time.

lanner food pass
Picture of Lanners “mock” food passing

Clearly the behaviour alone, not the food itself was important to them. It was a game. They went through the same routine in “mock” practice. That was an interesting insight as I had not appreciated it before nor would have learned about it had it not been for the high speed shutter of the camera.

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The Stoop

The falcon stooped and fell across the sky to rebound among a small flock of birds. She mounted high again, turned and powered herself down for another onslaught. They flew out of sight and the result was unknown.

Since the dawn of man few things in nature have been so exciting to watch. This same scene may well have been witnessed while the pyramids were being built, or by some ancient hominids trudging their way across ankle-deep volcanic dust in northern Tanzania. All would surely have raised an eyebrow and dropped their jaw in awe.

The “stoop” is a weapon used by falcons and some other raptors such as large eagles. It is a trick, a sleight of hand they have up their sleeve to propel themselves faster than any known creature on earth. We all have some inherent primitive wish to see an object arc across the sky to its destination, be it a rock, an arrow or a ball. The trajectory has aim and purpose. A falcon’s stoop looks so set in its path that nothing could alter its headlong rush. Its mastery overshadows the violence.

I have seen the word “stoop” weakened by it meaning to bend over, or to describe a certain part of a front veranda. It is not a very inspiring word when used alone, but when used in Shakespearean prose, such as “She stoops to conquer” the word sends a cold chill down my spine. I will never tire to witness stoops done in play, vengeance and in deadly pursuit.

I was in thick traffic at the time entering a particularly unpleasant area of Nairobi and brooding on bad thoughts. The sky suddenly opened before me and down she came, her wings clipping sharply to her sides. She folded, and shot in a downward slope, then she started flicking her wings again. I knew this to be a “feint,” a false move, meant to confuse, so I looked down and ahead. Streaking along the traffic over the transmission wires and untidy security barbed walls of go-downs, was a flock of mixed birds. They swerved the moment she fell, then carried on as fast as they could. She feinted again and the birds changed direction, but with a few less who took a course over flatter ground. Then she banked over and upside down to get as much leverage from the wind beneath her wings to drop down on her back.

The speed is indescribable for, in a less than a second, she had covered hundreds of meters in a flat unchangeable trajectory and was a blur. Her first stoop was not intended to kill, I am sure, but to separate the flock still more. She curved out in a long spiral into the sky and smoothly turned over inverted again for a second stoop.

She was a haggard Peregrine, and she was perfection. I had taken Tim (the Lanner) out flying the other evening. He has still to take permanent leave and reappears every few days. I asked Jonathan to swing the lure and I gave the camera a go. I am nowhere near as good as Laila but I was impressed by a picture of Tim upside-down, turning and preparing to stoop down and towards the camera.



You can see a few of the top (upperwing coverts) feathers, which are very stiff, bending out from the top of the wing camber. They are obviously in very low pressure, near vacuum, turbulent air. The underside must be in very high pressure air.

There is some aerodynamic reason why falcons like to turn over in a dramatic roll, look over their back, and then use all that latent energy piled up under the wing to surge downwards. It makes sense to use the lifting wing, the wrong way up to hurtle the falcon down. Often at the apex of the inverted roll they row their wings, to fly down. This initial energy throws the falcon down into its dive.

In movies one often sees an airplane that is flying slightly low and parallel, lift up, bank and pull away showing its belly. It is the “must do” flying shot in all films. It is unnatural and from personal experience a bit unnerving. A falcon or pilot can go down simply by putting the nose down, but they would loose that advantage which is the lifting power of the wing to give it that first few seconds of downward force. Down and into that wonder of nature called the “stoop.”

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Success in Tsavo

Despite having got a few photographs of raptors in Tsavo West over the first three days we were there, it was rather disappointing. We saw very little in the way of vultures or any other raptor for that matter. We didn’t even see any of the lions or elephants that Tsavo is famous for. The only thing that did not disappoint was our place of stay with friends at Finch Hatton’s which is as beautiful and friendly as ever. In the wood by Finch Hatton is where we saw four species of hawk and heard a fifth.

We left Tsavo feeling a little glum and spent three days at the coast on a Southern Banded Snake Eagle mission. We saw two fleeting glimpses of the bird as it disappeared into thick forest so perhaps we will need to return next year for photos.

We drove back through Tsavo East National Park and were amazed at the contrast between what we got in three days before going to the coast and what we got in three hours in Tsavo East. Before sunset on that first day back, we saw three Wahlberg’s Eagle nests, a Martial Eagle nest, Fish Eagles, African Hawk Eagles displaying and lots of Bateleur Eagles. The red elephants of Tsavo also made several appearances.

Young Wahlberg’s Eagle on nest

African Hawk Eagle

We spent one night in Tsavo East before moving back to Tsavo West where we hoped to finally get the migrants we had been waiting for. Back in Tsavo West, we had a completely different experience from the previous time. We went briefly to Ngulia Lodge to talk to Colin Jackson, Graeme Backhurst and David Pearson, who were mist-netting thousands of migrants. It was certainly the premier destination for migrants and their human followers.

We also saw many more raptors and mammals this time around. It rained for our whole second night and continued to do so as we set off in the morning. Not too far down the road, we saw a couple of cars stopped and all the passengers standing on the road. We slowed down and asked if everything was alright and they responded that they were just looking at a Sooty Falcon. We jumped to attention – the Sooty Falcon is one of our much needed species to photograph. The observers of the falcon were none other than migrant-seeking birders Fleur Ngweno, Brian Finch, Gordon Boy and others! The rain had brought in the migrants and the premier birders.

We exchanged phone numbers with the birders and promised to be in touch if we saw anything exciting. We didn’t drive too long before we saw another falcon, accompanied by seven others: Amur Falcons! We watched as they sped through the air with full crops, catching termites in the rain. It was good to see but frustratingly rainy and dark so photographing them was tough. A little further on, we saw a few more and stopped. We watched as a swarm of over 200 Amur Falcons flew over us. We let the birders know what was going on and they turned up and were excited to see so many migratory falcons in one go.

Female Amur Falcon

We camped near Finch Hatton’s that night and on our way to our campsite, we found a vulture roost. Simon had been worried that a large roost he used to know from a different location might have been wiped out by poisoning but we counted over 80 individuals at this new site so concluded that the roost must have moved.

We went back to the forest by Finch Hatton’s first thing in the morning. We saw rare Ovampo Sparrowhawks swapping food in the air, Cuckoo hawks building a nest, an African Goshawk, a Fish Eagle and a Harrier Hawk and heard the Little Sparrow-Hawk calling, all in a little patch of Yellow Fever forest by the lodge. It was a great photo opportunity.

Ovampo Sparrowhawk with prey

Cuckoo Hawk

This first 11-day trip ended up being immensely successful, but it also highlighted some of the difficulties we will have throughout this expedition. If we had made conclusions after we spent our first three days there, we might have said that raptors in Tsavo are not doing very well. But spending those extra four days there on return from the coast proved otherwise. It is going to take a lot of time, patience and collaboration with other people to get an idea of what is happening over the whole of Africa.

Searching for Eagles in Tsavo

Laila and I spent the last few weeks on safari photographing raptors in Tsavo National Park and at Sokoke Forest at the coast.

It was a productive period which we first began with old friends at Finch Hatton’s in Tsavo West. I started out on crutches thanks to my recent leg and hip injury, but as the warmth increased I soon felt less uncomfortable and got rid of them. We spent two days there looking for Steven or Emily, two Crowned Eagles I released years ago in their forest. Unfortunately we did not see either of them, but we did see many other raptors. We saw a number of Bateleur Eagles and to my relief a good number of vultures roosting away from their normal site at the Kitani Bridge.

Bateleur Eagle

Laila reminded me that this vulture satellite roost was active in the same spot last year. These vultures are particularly good to see given the extent of poisoning in the areas adjacent and within the park boundaries. A massive female Martial Eagle sat in a tree above our heads unfortunately in poor light. I realize now how much we, as photographers, think in terms of “good light.”

Martial Eagle

Laila is one of the fastest camera-women I know. She can throw the long lens camera to her eye and shoot a moving target with unnerving accuracy and speed. I try to duplicate the shots with my lens and although pleased with what I achieve I feel totally beaten by the fantastic shots she makes. I have learned to angle the car to her side and have become complacent in knowing that she’ll have the “bird in the bag,” no matter where it moves. She looks a little absurd for she is small and the camera huge. She counterbalances the lens by leaning back and at a distance looks like a perfect “T” shape. I am not surprised that she sometimes complains of a bad back. Some of her pictures are classics, unparalleled to my knowledge by any others. We have been through some trying times and tough moments in which we have both questioned the sanity of our mission. But peering over her shoulder at some of the images captured I am both amazed and excited that we will produce a wonderful collection of images of African raptors. The results have far exceeded my usual overly critical expectations.

Pygmy Falcon

As we drove we counted the raptors we saw. I try and keep my attention on the road, and Laila usually spots the birds first. I then verify her identification and she writes it down next to the mileage. The data produced does not give a true number of what is around but it is one way of setting a standard and a rough index of species composition and density. There is a clear difference in raptor numbers between rural farmed land and ranches and protected areas. In rural areas which comprise much of the route, there are very few species and very few of them. In protected areas the species diversity increases dramatically as do their numbers. In ranch land or areas in which some natural habitat is still relatively undisturbed raptor numbers can be good, but typically made up of a handful of tolerant species. It is plausible therefore to look up at the sky and tell where you are! The bigger message is of course that many raptors are now dependent upon protected areas and active tolerance of wildlife.

Tsavo West has the advantage of having mountains and ridges on which you can sit and gaze out across the plains beneath with the wind blowing vertically up the side. It is on these ridges like these that eagles and falcons slope-soar. They can move without a wing beat and travel fast. On migration it is just these slopes that raptors use to lessen their energy requirements. In mid to late November there are numerous migrants that sneak in under cover of rain clouds feeding on rising clouds of winged termites. But the rains were late. We did see a number of Steppe Eagles a few Harriers and Eurasian Hobbies.

We went on to stay with Charlotte and Norbert Rottcher at Vipingo on the north coast. They live on a 100 acre patch of mostly indigenous forest with large bat caves. They have breeding Barn Owls, Fish Eagles and Black Sparrowhawks in this remarkably rich and bio-diverse area that is crying out for proper conservation status. We spent one evening at the mouth of a bat cave watching the frantic flight of hundreds of fruit bats while Genet Cats lurked to seize those that collided and fell. Then we went on to meet William Kombe at Sokoke Forest in the hope of photographing the rare Southern Banded Snake Eagle. We saw two but time did not allow us to linger and we pressed on to Tsavo East via Malindi.

Laila will write the next entry regarding Tsavo East and our lucky encounter with large migratory flocks of small falcons in Tsavo West. The day after we arrived back from safari Laila returned home to spend Christmas with her family. It was a fast pace of high intensity work followed by sudden cessation and despite having a mountain of work to complete I feel at a loss right now.

For the Africa Raptor Expedition to proceed on schedule it is essential that I find a home for the last bird in my care, the Bearded Vulture. The car, test driven over some of the roughest sections has done well mechanically but fails in being properly outfitted for a trans-Africa trip. These issues must be resolved quickly when Laila returns and we continue with our work across southern Africa in January 2009.

Some Good Luck – A Rare Eagle

Kina and Gustav, the Swedish overlander couple, stayed with us again at Simon’s house. They intended to stay one night before moving on to the coast. We flew Tim the Lanner in the morning and he is fitter than ever before and his acrobatics are spectacular. He still has his quirky attitude and loves to land on people’s heads. There are a couple of wild Tawny Eagles that have started perching nearby, planning to steal scraps from Tim. As Tim showed off, we noticed a large number of vultures descending fast. We didn’t want to leave Stima, the new young Lanner Falcon, alone at the house as a stray cat roams the area. So we put him in the car between our Swedish friends and off we went to find the kill.

On our way, friends from the ranch, Gray Cullen and Suze, came to check on Stima. They had cameras and decided to join us, too. We got to the spot to find two dead calves covered in vultures and eagles. The vultures took flight and I photographed them as they soared above the car. Then Simon asked me to quickly divert my attention to an eagle that was sitting in a tree just next to the dead calf. I took a couple of photos and we got closer. Simon got very excited and demanded I take as many photographs as possible. He said he thought it was a Greater Spotted Eagle. He only sees them come through once every two-to-three years so it really was special. It cooperated by letting us get quite close and just flying between nearby trees.

greater spotted eagle
Greater Spotted Eagle

Suze and Gray invited us all to lunch and we had a feast. They had bought a football for Tuli, a captive cheetah that lives on the ranch, and were intending to bring it to her that afternoon so we all went along. We all piled into Gray’s car and were driving along when Simon said excitedly “cheetah!” A little further down the road, there she was, beautiful. We stopped the car and spent the following half-hour quietly watching as she stalked impalas and an oryx through the bush. She didn’t catch anything and disappeared into the trees so we continued on our way to see Tuli.

cheetah and oryx
Wild Cheetah facing an Oryx

We arrived to find Tuli lying by the pool. She stood up as we approached and gave Gray an intense look that made him back off a bit. Suze drew Tuli’s attention away from Gray by throwing the ball which she ran after, pounced on, and held it in a lock with her teeth sunk in. She held that pose for at least five minutes, wanting to make sure the ball was dead. We quickly realised that there would be no game unless we got the ball from her but we were all a little nervous to try and take it. I was one of the only people wearing proper shoes and trousers, so I went forward to claim the ball. As I got close, she turned and growled at me, making me jump back. I approached again and managed to slowly draw the ball away with my foot. The game was on! I kicked it into the distance and off she went and everyone joined in.

football with Tuli
Football with Tuli

After our long and exciting day, we all crashed out early. I think Gustav and Kina are glad they spent the extra day here and we’re grateful for the amazing luck they brought us.

(For copyright reasons, we can’t post the pictures on the blog that we may want to publish at a later stage.)

Stima, the New Lanner Falcon

While staying at Hog Ranch a couple of weeks ago, we got a phone call saying that a small falcon had been electrocuted and fallen into someone’s garden on the outskirts of Nairobi. Susanne Goss took it on as she is familiar with caring for raptors, then it went to Zoe Gibbs another ‘carer’ of waifs and strays. It was identified as a Lanner Falcon, which seemed odd to me as it had fallen from a tree nest in the middle of a suburb. Zoe bought it over last week and it was a tiny male with a badly broken left tibia. He had only just left the nest, with all of his flight feathers in the blood. The right leg looked deformed, possibly as a result of keeping its weight on the “good leg.” Zoe took him back to Nairobi to get him X-ray’d the next day. The fracture was in two places but both joints looked fine and there is a good chance of complete recovery of the use of that leg. Stima needs a lot of care as he cannot stand and struggles to keep upright. He must be fed each mouthful and he can make quite a mess! Stima had to be handed over to the Cullen’s who live on the ranch and then Laila and I ended up looking after him for a few days.

Feeding Stima

Stima means electricity, but it is unlikely that this damage was entirely due to hitting an electric fence or by being electrocuted. More likely, he had the fracture in the nest or after he fell to the ground incapable of flight. Like all of his kind he is very intelligent and cute. Lanners look around them and understand who is who and quickly settle down. As a result, Lanners, like a few other falcons, are one of the easiest to get through trauma or illness.

Stima was placed in a sling to get weight off his legs. He looks a bit pathetic but it is a much better solution than lying on broken legs. He was introduced to Tim, the now adult male Lanner. Tim flew in after a night out to find Stima sitting in the early morning sun in his sling. Stima, stunned at the appearance of what he assumes is his father, let out a yell for joy, and kept it up while I placed Tim within arms length. Tim was a bit embarrassed, especially so when Stima lent forward to steal his food. Tim knew the signals, but couldn’t work out the next step required for his unexpected sudden fatherhood, and flew off. He spent the morning ignoring Stima. But now and again he’d fly by to have a look, and little Stima would start yelling again.

As sad as this may sound, Stima is overjoyed and improving fast. He has other problems no doubt. He may have a chest infection as he has a low hum each time he exhales. He kept it up most of the night as he sat in his box next to my head.

He will go into surgery this Tuesday at Dr. Barry Cockar’s clinic. We hope to pin the leg and straighten it out. He will need a lot of intensive care, and Laila and I cannot keep remaining behind our expedition schedule due to new arrivals or accidents. I can now walk a little, and was even allowed to drive the car yesterday.

Stima will stay with the Cullen’s until Zoe gets back in about 10 days. I know they will take good care of him. Meanwhile, we have a busy schedule ahead.

Wildlife in Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

On the night of the 7th, Laila and I took a night game drive around Portland Cement, a neighbouring property. It is a 15,000 acre mining area with livestock ranching and is adjacent to where I live on Swara Plains Conservancy. The amount of wildlife there is incredible. Thousands of plains game such as wildebeest, zebra, Thomson’s and Grant Gazelles occur here in greater abundance than they do in most of our national parks, and perhaps only bettered during the high season in the Mara Reserve.

It remains entirely neglected by all but a few people. It has no conservation status despite its national importance and has vast potential for large wildlife tourism on which it could survive in perpetuity.

Within the first few minutes, armed with a strong spotlight (and still no headlights on the car), we saw an aardvark, busy digging for ants. He (or she) then did a strange thing and walked straight towards the car seemingly happy that its path was being lit before it by the spotlight. It then came within three meters, caught our sent, and bolted off in a hurry! I have never seen an aardvark this close before in my life, nor its strange behaviour.

Bold aardvark

I few hundred yards down the road we came to the object of our night drive, namely a sad event in which two wildebeest had fallen down an exploratory mine shaft left uncovered. We had failed to pull them out earlier fearing that hyenas would fall into the same trap. While doing so, Tim the Lanner came and sat on a tree in the sunset to see what we were up to before flying back home for the night.

Tim at sunset

We hoped the smell of the dead wildebeest would bring in some of the night wildlife that would allow us to test our new camera equipment. We messed up our only opportunity as a young hyena sat low in the grass very close to the car.

The next morning, we went around the ranch to double check that no hyena had tumbled into the shaft. None had, but we noticed two Tawny Eagles across the plains and on arriving there saw butchered meat hanging in the trees. This was clearly wildlife meat poaching, a matter that required immediate resolution as gangs of poachers can work quickly and unnoticed with devastating effect.

Poached meat

We headed off to see the Manager to talk of poaching, commercial illegal wood cutting and worsening security issues. This surge in illegal activity may be due to rumours that land use policy is changing. This would allow rapid encroachment and habitat destruction.

Just a few hundred metres from where we stood talking, vultures descended to a carcass. When we approached the scene, it turned out to be a freshly slaughtered wildebeest, poached and butchered that night.

We went also to view an active Martial Eagle nest, with a sub-adult male and adult female in attendance. A large chick was in the nest, a rare successful breeding attempt so far, for these enormous eagles that fair poorly in modern Kenya.

During the space of one morning before breakfast, we saw thousands of animals, photographed some eagles and saw first hand some of the major concerns facing wildlife. What is clear is that great places with immeasurable value can be under-appreciated. Within this vast commercial cement company, there are those that sincerely wish the land be used to maximize income and still keep its stunning natural wildlife and habitat. It can be done. It needs support from both government, non-government, private owners and shareholders.

Arrival in Kenya

After baggage hassle and flight delays, I finally made it back to Kenya early yesterday morning. Despite having been sleep-deprived for a couple of days and having a bad case of tonsillitis, I had a great first day back in this stunning country. As we drove to where Simon’s empty house currently lies, we saw huge amounts of wildlife and, most exciting for us, a secretary bird too busy eating a hare to care that we were so close.

Secretary bird eating a hare

I’ll admit much of the day was spent in and out of sleep on the floor of Simon’s house. The day finished off nicely as Tim the Lanner falcon flew in after a day off gallivanting. Tim was the first bird I flew when I volunteered with Simon last year. It was great to have him back on my fist. He spends his whole days out on his own now and where he goes is a mystery. But he returns at night and Simon keeps him at the foot of his bed to make sure he is not eaten by the genet cats that live in his roof.

tim and laila
Tim and Laila

Many of Africa’s raptor species occur in Kenya so we will be spending quite some time moving around here. We hope to visit Rosy and Girl, the Crowned Eagles, in Naivasha this weekend and get some footage of them. (Simon invested in a duty-free video camera on the way here). We also have a Lammergeyer (Bearded Vulture) to release in a fabulous location. That has had to be put off by a couple of weeks but we will write about all these exciting things as they happen.

Thanks to all the people that have sent very encouraging e-mails and Facebook messages. I don’t have time to respond to all but I really appreciate it and hope everyone enjoys the blog. Please join our African Raptor Expedition Facebook Group.

New Lanner Falcon brought in for rehabilitation

Lanner Falcon rescue.

15th May 2008.

I have not been able to access the blog for some months now, and apologise to those that have been kind enough to read it. I have been advised to keep my blogs short, but that won’t happen. Daily snippets are boring, but put end to end they end up make up a story.

On Friday the 28th March 2008 I went to the Animal orphanage at Kenya Wildlife Service to talk to the Veterinary Department regarding the issues of Furudan poisoning, dichlofenec use in wildlife, Newcastle’s disease in doves, rehabbing cheetah and if they had any raptors brought in for veterinary care. The last list on the agenda is usually the first reason why I visit! But importantly Dr Thomas Munyimbe had sent a memo to the KWS Director regarding new evidence of the mis-use of Carbofuran, and there was evident progress within KWS regarding this terrible poison.(see poison blog).

As I exited the Dept I bumped into Matuku who works at the adjacent Animal Orphanage and he surprised me by saying he had what he thought was a Peregrine Falcon. This news put a lively new energy into my step, and an urgency. I knew they have only cage management facilities to house raptors and this invariably leads to severe often irreparable damage. I am sure Matuku knew this and that is why he wanted me to see it. What transpired is very typical in raptor rehabilitation everywhere in the world. But here in Kenya I feel a few principles that have much to do with “hands off management” may encourage minimal handling and cage management to the detriment of all. There is some small deviation of thought that might lead people with the best of intentions, to inadvertently set in motion a process that leads to the loss of the subject they are trying to protect. I wish I knew how to better describe this frame of mind; for it often divides people with similar good intentions. Trouble is usually only one side, the least controversial side, wins

In December 2007 I had visited the orphanage and saw a few Black Kites and an Augur Buzzard sharing the same cage. The cage was generous, if too low and constructed to keep tortoises. Spanning some 15m by 8m and 2m high it is constructed of two layers of fine gauge chicken wire, on all four sides. On one side the public can pass by within 6m. Throughout the day some hundreds of people make their rounds to look at the adjacent lions and leopards and cheetah. The result for a new wild bird is of course complete panic. Within similar cages they fly as hard as they can to escape, and hit the end of the flight cage with such a high velocity that it is not unknown to break their necks. Such was the death of a fine wild Peregrine Falcon many years ago at our old Nairobi Snake Park. The falcon was seen to be only slightly damaged and because it was such a fine bird, rare and very fast, people thought it best to allow it as much room as possible with a clear unobstructed view. Those experienced wild animal rehabilitation will now begin to cringe in expectation of the following………for it is inevitable. After much head scratching to locate the biggest enclosure of all in the country the falcon, with the admiring attending party standing by in innocent awe, released the falcon. She flew the other side of the cage, hit the wire head on and died instantly. Everyone was mortified. “We did our best” was the outcry. “What could we have done instead?”. “Maybe a bigger cage?”.

It was probably best that she did die immediately, for if she hadn’t she would have slowly battered herself to death. Worse she could have beaten herself to such a state that release into the wild would have left her flightless and damaged and she would have starved to death. Cage sores, especially to the feet and bill become infected and can lie dormant for months even after a successful release. The condition steadily gets worse and will one day not allow the bird to stand or eat. It is such a pity that so many people think an open wire cage is good for birds, when it is the worse possible thing. Globally such avoidable tragic events must number in their thousands. I remember writing to a friend Nick Mooney some 15 years ago, then head of some big Dept in the Australian parks regarding the insanity of couping up raptors in small wire “flight sheds”. He was of a different opinion because he said so few knew anything better, but after a few years he changed his mind. Things have greatly improved in Australia I hear, if a little slow off the mark.

Cage management of wild raptors is possible. But it needs a lot of forethought, so long as it isn’t a “cage” and is a “shed”. The shed should be secluded, that is to say it that a bird inside it cannot see out, see no disturbing humans or animals and not have any reason to fly and hit the cage wall. The only thing that stops a bird from stupidly hitting a cage wall is if it is solid and an obvious obstruction. The sheds therefore are constructed of boards or planking and to a lay person look much crueler, because it denies them a view. These sheds, to have any hope of maintaining good physical condition of the bird need to be very large. For some eagles or falcons, their minimum turning radius is about the size of a basket ball pitch, for others the size of a cricket pitch, and few have the resources to build such an enclosure. But it must be done if there is any genuine attempt to rehabilitate a raptor to good physical fitness within an enclosure. If it can’t then there remains one and in my mind, very good option which I’ll explain shortly.

Sometimes people put many raptors all together in one pen and hope for the best. This may be a result of lack of alternative accommodation, but it isn’t logical. Or, as I have seen, it is because the owners are pleased that the “Lion is resting with the lamb”. I was struck dumb with amazement when shown owls and kites, hawks and buzzards, together with parrots, doves and rabbits. The owner was so pleased that they all got on. They should not, and they do not. But because the owner was seen to be kindly and caring few understood just how absurd this was and no action would be considered against them.

Raptors are big and powerful and will kill or intimidate any others smaller or less agile than they. I remember seeing a sick adult male Peregrine stuck in an old lavatory with 2 very large Spotted Eagle Owls. I was assured by the person “caring” for them that they “all got on fine”. They didn’t and the falcon died, and was eaten. Imagine what went through the falcon’s mind at night? Mixed species in cages will establish a pecking order. The one at the bottom of the social ladder will often have to sit in the corner and have its food stolen from it. Stress of this kind is lethal. Even if released such a socially demoralised bird stands little hope. Only very rarely is it possible to put more than one bird in one cage with another species. Even same species can have problems. Females of some species are notorious for eating males of their own species!

Inside a pen a raptor will spend much more time perched than usual. When they land they will have to do so abruptly and without a gentle stall that would soften the blow of impact. The perching surfaces must therefore be soft. Bumble-foot, the bane of ancient falconers was an insidious condition that begins slowly and simply won’t go away. A small pressure sore, becomes infected. Once the infection is in the foot it will get worse unless it is treated with antibiotics, surgery and a regime of soft perches and care for the rest of its life. After a few thousand years of captive raptor management we know how to avoid and cure it and modern day rehabers have little excuse. It is an ailment that applies to most medium and large birds in captivity. Without providing these soft perches most hawks and especially large falcons will get bumble-foot.

My heart fell to my sandals as I turned the corner and saw the falcon hanging on the side of the cage with a massive cage sore on its bill. She was a young female Lanner Falcon, brought in sometime around December last year. She had as company three black kites and the Augur Buzzard. Among these she had survived 3 months. A well behaved group of school children filed by and she and the others all flew up and hit the cage. Less well behaved kids lagged behind and the birds again did a few more circuits.

lcere.JPGMatuku said I should see an old friend Richard Obanda, now in education at KWS head quarters. Richard immediately understood the situation and asked that I go and pick her up on the following Monday, after conferring with Dr Kariuki. All knew that she was too valuable to loose. On Monday I quickly caught her as she tried climbing the chicken wire wall rubbing her face, thankfully for the last time, on the cage wall. I hooded her and put her in a box and soon was driving back through horrendous traffic on our way home. 3 hours later within minutes of getting back I jessed her and examined her smashed face. The soft fleshy part of her cere (or nose) had been scrapped away down to the bone (see photo). But it had not cut through the bone and she could breath through the nostrils. The keratin part of the bill grows from this soft cere. The bill is like our fingernails. Imagine if you removed the fleshy part of the skin at the root (or “quick”) of the fingernail. You’d still have a fingernail, but not for long. In time the nail would fall off, or grow through misshaped and crooked. Right now she has a bill, (which is also split up the centre from impact injury), but it is questionable if she can grow the bill. I have seen bills fall off, and once tried coating the underlining bone with dental plastic. These false teeth, were only a stop gap and later the bird was unable to eat and died. That bird came from a different caring-for-animal institution, who were very reticent about given the bird over to a falconer lest it be flown free and hunted at wild animals. Well it stood no chance of it thanks to the cage “care” and rest assured if it had been released in would have died much sooner.

billmess.JPGNote that the soft part of the cere is cut away to the bone and that the left nostril is deformed. The bill tip is also split, and this can, on its own destroy the bill.

The Lanner also has Bumble-foot, but it isn’t irreversible with treatment.

Tim, the now errant and hardly-at-home male Lanner is of course too young to recognise the fact that this new lanner is a lady, with whom, if he plays his cards right, could be his mate! At the end of my bed I put up two perches for them to spend the night in close proximity. On the second morning Tim jumped over to the new female’s perch and nibbled her face. There is mutual affection here and I would be keen to see where it goes. Tim is releasable. He already spends many nights out on his own and is being more and more cheeky in refusing to come back to my call. This new lady may not be releasable, but she could breed with Tim in the next few years. I will not hold Tim back if he wishes to leave. He is a proficient hunter now, and is moulting into a fine second year adult. If things work well I would like to fly the new lady with Tim and together they can make a territory above my house.


Tim (on right) and his new lady friend in their night quarters.

Richard Obanda asked that I write a protocol for KWS to use in the event of getting new raptors. With luck I hope that they will adopt a different approach that will benefit the birds. It is justified to keep some raptors, in particular those with no chance of release as exhibits for the visitors. It is easy to build a proper semi-enclosed shed that will allow visitors a chance to see a raptor. It will take resources to do so and hopefully we can raise this within the orphanage.

The above was written a few days after I got her. She was flying free to the glove and lure in 7 days. By 10 days she was flying together with Tim. I named her “Lucy”. Originally she was low in weight and had ossified scar tissue on her keel (the result of the cage). This damage, unnoticed at first examination was quite debilitating, as she took much longer than usual to get fit. Although she was successful in catching a lark with Tim after her first month it has only been in the last 2 weeks were she has been able to keep up with Tim. Flying falcons together is termed a “cast”. Flying male and female together is not usual. To see two very different sized falcons, fly and hunt together has allowed a new appreciation and insight into the seemingly odd reversed sexual dimorphism of raptors. They compliment each other, as they fly differently and can cover different ground, airspace and strategies. If they were the same, they would have a more limited scope with less opportunities. Poor Tim, fromerly master of the skies around my desolate house now has to concede dominion to his larger partner. When he catches the lure when flying, she invariably lands and bullies him off it. Not accepting his servant role he gets very upset and with a cackle of annoyance puffs out his feathers and jumps in top of Lucy in full battle mode. But she doesn’t even know he is there, and Tim gets shrugged off ignominiously. Slowly they are forming a routine and there is a definite bond growing. When Tim zooms off on his own mission, she follows as fast as she can. Although it looks like he does not give a damn where she is, if she doesn’t turn up for a while he goes off to look. Once found he ignores her. Often when they are out flying I walk up the hill to the windmill by which stands a horrible out-of-place exotic Pepper Tree that thrives on the overspill. They beat me to it, and I can see them at a distance sitting quite close together in the lower part of the tree, just as mates would do. Again I am allowed a peek into what presumably must be the pair bonding of wild falcons. Is naive youngsters they are making many mistakes that are painful to watch. But I am very happy that these falcons, who alone and released in the wild stand so poor a chance, may be able to survive together and stand a much better chance. I was able to do this with Crowned Eagles before. Two is always better than one. So far they have short circuited the difficult to achieve needs of territory and mate. Now they need a place to nest and the skills to provide their own food. I am grateful to KWS for giving me to take Lucy home. It hasn’t been hard work, it has been great fun.


Lucy flying free. Her cere and bill are noticeably damaged but it looks like she might recover.

14th Nov 2007

14th Nov 2007.

Yesterday I flew Tim down by the dam. It is one of the best ways to get respite from life’s more stressful or boring moments. Tim is a male Lanner Falcon. He fell from Times Tower in the middle of Nairobi city in early July this year. Fortunately someone in a queue waiting for a licence saw him being beaten up outside and he rushed out to save his life. He then took it to the Ornithology Department National Museums of Kenya, who then phoned up my colleague Munir Virani, who then phoned me. This is how I usually get my birds.

Unfortunately Tim was thrust into a small wire cage at the museum for about an hour. It is a matter that makes me purple but is all too commonly done at vet’s, wildlife institutions and so-called ‘rehabilitators’. It may have killed more raptors taken into captivity than any other practise. The standard response; “Oh, we didn’t know what to do with it”, is a little less upsetting than “Hum, well we take a very dim view indeed of making it tame and sticking jesses on it and much prefer throwing it in a cage so that it can batter itself to an early death“. (The italics part isn’t said……but it is the invariable end result).

The soft part of the nose called the cere and it is like sealing wax. It can be sliced open in one hard hit against a chicken wire cage. If so the quick, the area from which the beak grows can be permanently damaged. Months later the bill can grow out skew and make the bird incapable of eating. The tail is the next to go. Slammed up against a cage the tail is thrust through the mesh and snaps. It takes over one whole year for one flight feather to grow, fall out and be replaced. Two broken flight feathers is just about tolerable for bumbling raptors like kites, but not for falcons and goshawks. Three is too much. It is not usual to get hawks from vet’s with all primaries and all tail feathers snapped (That’s 32 feathers requiring some 2 years worth of captivity for them to grow through properly).


Picture of Tim looking cute . He turns his head upside down as a comic gesture, and if you turn yours he’ll try to out-do you all the more. Note the damage on the top of his cere.(Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)</p>

Poor Tim had broken 4 tail feathers and had another 2 pulled out. His cere was damaged, but fortunately not very badly. He had also lost one claw in the cage, but that has grown back. He would have died had he been reared in a cage and released. No question. Unfortunately this is the form of “management” favoured all over East Africa, and is not unknown elsewhere.

Lanner Falcons are one of my favourite raptors, being very intelligent, docile on their perches, and dynamite in the sky. They stoop finer than almost all falcons. The vertical dive straight down from many hundreds of meters is a miracle of the natural world. Peregrines, Sakers, Barbaries are unreal too, but they seldom have the affection of the Lanner, or their consistent and reliable performance. Peregrines and Barbaries are faster but they are arrogant in their mastery and tend to zoom off over the horizon if bored for one minute. Lanners come back. My old Lanner died recently aged about 17. She always had a lung infection and she never did fly that well. She knew she’d never make it in the wild. She’d abandon me regularly for days but walk in through the back door and sit on her perch behind my TV as though nothing had happened. It was a great relationship. Tim is half her size. He is a midget compared to the eagles. But he is mischievous and flashy.


Tim learning to fly on a creance with Laila.

Training raptors is common sense. They come to you for food initially of course but within days they come to you simply because you offer a nice perch and security. In about 4 days most falcons look forward to seeing you and many of these were completely “wild” prior to that. For example, I had one “wild” Martial Eagle, hit of the road eat from my hand 6 hours after being brought in. I never “trained” him, he just got better over the next few weeks and flew to me because he never thought it bad to do otherwise. He hated strangers though, and that was fine, because when he took his leave he was once again “wild”. He was fully trained and hunting in 2 weeks without once ever “tying him up”.

Tim never did need training either. He just flew to you cos he is a pig and likes to eat. Each day he’d eat to repletion. There was no question of not giving him a full belly. But first you have to fly him on a long line (called a creance), before progressing to flying free, which he did in a few weeks. I had great satisfaction in teaching Laila and Gai Cullen the rudiments of training Tim. Two people of differing backgrounds both learning so much about raptors that now each is fervent supporter of their conservation. It is a “no brainer” to understand how this connection can easily be made. The picture below shows Gai flying Tim to the lure. The lure in this case is a (long dead) day old chick on the end of a cord. It is swung around at high speed and Tim comes in as fast as he can to catch it in mid air. He may be hard flying for 10-15 minutes. That this exercise is a thousand times more than that which can be achieved in a matter what size is immaterial to his hunting ability. At his early stage in his training he is still a buffoon incapable of catching anything as much as he tries. Later his lure got bigger and had old dried wings of francolins attached to it. He knew is was a francolin, but it got hammered nevertheless.


Tim about to catch the lure. (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

Tim has failed miserably to catch anything substantial since he was brought in. He at first thought he could kill anything. He would fly off to bomb Egyptian Geese at the dam, then after a good smacking he gave up of those (10 times his weight!). He changed his mind and try to take herons, and Ibis, again about 10 times bigger prey than normal! After a while he figured this was tough to do. I have seldom had a falcon longer than a few weeks who did not start hunting much sooner. But I realise the problem is that all my dogs have died. I have used pointers for 20 years and I never really knew until now how useful they were. They find not only game birds like francolin, but also larks, pipits on the ground, and starlings, sparrows and doves in the bushes. Instead of having all day as would a wild falcon to find food, I have 30 minutes each afternoon so find them quickly. Gai has pointers. Pointers were first bred for falcons and not for guns, and it took only a few hours for Tim to realise that Hazel (the pointer) was a good thing to follow around. We have had good flights over Hazel, but not one kill because they are not together often enough. But Tim did get one dove fair and square on his own, and he has taken some small bats near nightfall and a lot of bumble bees. His old problem returns however. The broken tail feathers although imped (fixed with old feathers of another falcon with a metal pin in the hollow shaft) keep breaking. It may be that this is why he just hasn’t been able to get going properly.

One of the fine things about messing around with hawks is learning about their daft sense of humour. I have had generations of falcons swoop down out of the sky in great style to seize dried cow pats. Once caught the cow pat is carried around like a trophy. It is tossed in the air, caught and often brutally strangled. Sometimes they fly up with one to a great height and drop it, only to kill it again half way down. Their sense of play is highly developed. few would dispute a kitten or puppy capable of such pranks. But a noble falcon or eagle seems to be exempt from playing. But in understanding that they do it makes one realise just how advanced an animal they really are. Below is a picture of Tim on his first and unsuccessful stoop on a cow pat. You may be able to see that he missed it and smacked his face into the dirt!


Tim’s first attempt, note cow pats, and how they avoided being taken.


Tim’s second attempt. He returns on foot.


Tim’s third attempt. Success! Poor cow pat.

Tim is fast becoming an expert in the sky. Once he starts to catch real living food he will soon start to think of wandering away for good. Yesterday was a bad day for me. People problems and a day in the centre of Nairobi, followed by a gruelling back-breaking drive home. As soon as I stepped out the car I walked over to Tim and asked him to step onto my glove.

As I drove past the zebra and eland herds with Tim on my left hand on my way to the dam my brooding melancholy started to lift. Getting there, just before sun set, which is usually too late, the sun broke through the clouds as I released Tim. Off he flew with great abandon. Over herons and geese long since used to his silly ways. He very narrowly missed a few doves and tried as hard as he could to catch a Greenshank. As it got nearly dark tiny bats with white bellies emerged and flew over the choppy waves of the dam. Tim did all he could again. Nearing exhaustion he decided to come to my calls. He alighted on the ground behind me and allowed me to pick him up and feed him. We drove home happy.