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Bird watching > The Cyprus falcons March 25, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Nature.

The term ‘bird of prey’ more often than not conjures up images of majestic eagles gliding effortlessly through the air against a backdrop of bright blue sky or imposing mountains, or maybe vultures surrounding a carcass, their heads covered in blood as they rip pieces of flesh from the dead animal. Yet how often do we get the chance to see these scenes outside the wildlife documentary?

The smaller birds of prey, especially the falcons, are more easily observed, and this month I want to look at several of the falcons that can be seen in Cyprus. A falcon is a typically small to medium-sized bird of prey, usually having thin, tapered wings that enable it to fly at great speeds and to be able to change direction rapidly. Falcons range from largely insect-eating birds to the almost exclusively bird-eating peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). They are renowned for their remarkable powers of sight and in general they hunt from a height, locating their prey by using visual clues.

The falcon that just about every one will have seen is the common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). It is the most common small bird of prey resident in Cyprus. This is the bird that you may see hovering as if suspended in mid-air close to the road’s edge. It is unmistakeable with its pointed wings and long tail that hangs downwards as the bird hovers, spread out like a fan. As soon as it sights its prey, it makes a short steep dive down to catch its target. Kestrels feed on small mammals like mice as well as small birds, lizards, large insects and even frogs. They also hunt from perches and when not hovering can be seen just perching on wires or even lampposts, hoping to catch sight of something to eat moving in the undergrowth nearby. Its keen eyesight means that it can locate prey at remarkable distances.

Kestrels are mainly brown with dark spotting. The male has a blue-grey head and tail. The tail has a black tip, which shows as a black line when it is open as the bird hovers. Widespread in Cyprus, they can be seen anywhere from coast to hillside, farm to city centre, although they do not like dense forest. They are very adaptable in their choice of nest site. They will use the old or disused nests of crows or other birds that make their nests from sticks. Ledges on cliffs or buildings are also used. The late Louis Kourtellarides, in his book “The Breeding Birds of Cyprus”, tells of finding a kestrel’s nest in a flowerpot on the frequently used veranda of a block of flats in central Nicosia, while a pair seems to be breeding on the old fort in Paphos Harbour this spring.

During the 1950s and 60s, kestrels suffered a serious decline throughout Europe due to the effects of pesticides like DDT. After these were banned, they made a good recovery, which has recently received a setback, probably as a consequence of the intensive farming practices predominant in Europe as a result of the Common Agricultural Policy. In Cyprus, the population seems strong at the moment.

The peregrine falcon was also severely affected by the use of DDT, but luckily it too has made a good recovery. This large and powerful falcon is an uncommon breeding resident  in Cyprus. Its small population is most years supplemented in the winter and during migration by a few visitors. The peregrine is blue-grey above, with a blackish top to its head and a black ‘moustache’, which contrasts with its white face and finely spotted breast.

One of the peregrine’s claims to fame is the remarkable speed that it reaches when diving, stooping, to catch its prey. However, it is likely that the claimed speeds of 430km/h are exaggerated. Even so, it is probably the fastest moving bird in the world when stooping for prey. Its nostrils are especially adapted to control its breathing at such speeds. It feeds primarily on birds that it catches in flight.

The Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae) also catches its prey in flight. This bird is a summer visitor to Cyprus, breeding along the south coast cliffs from Cape Gata to Petra tou Romiou. It catches large insects such as dragonflies but delays its breeding season until late summer and then specialises in catching the migrating swallows and swifts that pass at that time of year.

Two smaller falcons can be found in Cyprus while on migration between Europe and Africa in spring and autumn. The hobby (Falco subbuteo) resembles the peregrine but is about the size of the kestrel. It has long pointed wings and resembles a giant swift in flight. It catches and eats its prey in flight, agilely transferring it from talons to beak without dropping it. Its scientific name, subbuteo, means literally ‘smaller than a buzzard’. However, the name is well known to many as it was adopted by the inventor of the popular table football game after he was not allowed to register his first choice trademark, the Hobby.

Hobbies should be seen soon on spring migration as can the red-footed falcon (Falco verspertinus), although the latter is more common in the autumn. The male is an attractive bird, blue-grey all over except for its red undertail and legs. The female has a grey back and wings, rufous coloured head and underparts and a white face with black eye stripe and moustache. The young birds are brown above and buff below and are often encountered in autumn. These birds can usually be seen in small groups in open fields near our coasts.

Cyprus can be a good place to observe larger birds of prey on migration but these smaller falcons are just as interesting and often just as spectacular, especially if seen chasing their prey.

If you want to know more about Cyprus’ birds or are interested in joining BirdLife Cyprus please contact P.O. Box 28076, 2090 Nicosia, telephone 22 455072 or e-mail birdlifecy@cytanet.com.cy Alternatively join for a walk near Larnaca Sewage Works on Sunday April 1. Call 99059541 for details.

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