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A race against time for the Eleonora’s Falcon

On 10 December 2022 Nick Trent and I flew to Tinderet in the highlands of western Kenya to pick up an exhausted Eleonora’s Falcon. Read more about the background of this rescue mission here.

Though weighing some 337-380 grams she is the second smallest of all the raptors at Soysambu Raptor Centre and needs careful management. She’s timid, delicate and diminutive and fragile like crystal glass especially as her feathers were totally ruined from exposure. We thought this was the result of hotter-than-ever recorded desert temperatures, a possible bath in a soda lake or, more likely, she was just not looking after herself.

Raptors preen, falcons especially so, and it’s a once or twice a day routine of spreading waterproofing oil from a gland near the base of the tail through their feathers. When raptors get starved or stressed they stop preening. And then a vicious cycle begins resulting in poor waterproofing and an inadequate flight quality of each flight feather, requiring more energy expenditure to fly. Already underweight and stressed, starvation quickly consumes muscle first, fat second and death is certain.

First year raptors have a heavy death toll of some 50 to 75% and inexperience in hunting or avoiding predation is the most common reason. Add to this the huge rings on her legs and climate change and you end up with what seems an unfair start. Luckily she took to being well cared for, fed as much as she could eat, sprayed with fresh rain water (a very scarce commodity during our prolonged drought) and left on a custom made high screen perch to moult out and get fresh new feathers.

Left: Anna-Maria at the start of her moult on 21 Dec 2022 showing two new dark primaries. Note the ragged almost useless brown flight feathers. Right: A selection of her moulted but ragged first year feathers. Typical of both UV sun destruction as well as fungal consumption the pale part of the feathers are more eaten than the dark giving a serrated look to especially the primaries.

Her moult began slowly and in the sequence typical of falcons, but it commenced a few weeks late. Late that is for a clean moult to complete in time for the early “spring” migration back home to Spain. So the race was on to induce rapid moult and to give her every convenience and peace and quiet. By mid February about ¾ of her wing flight feathers had moulted beautifully. The new ones were dark and mostly unbarred. But her tail had only moulted the “deck” feathers (the two central tail feathers). Now at this juncture the minute details of her moult would only be avidly discussed at great length by falconers. They stress about each feather in a most pedantic and to others, near insane way. Most raptor rehabbers do not understand the need for each and every feather to be perfect, if their continued use of open sided cages is an indication. A falconer moulting out such a dainty princess as this would not conceive of such an injustice. So great pains were taken to hurry on her moult and keep each feather perfect. The clock was ticking because she has to go home among the company of cohort Eleonora’s, Sooty, Lesser and Common Kestrels feasting on the explosions of insects and small birds that accompany rain fronts. The journey itself is fraught with danger, the chief being that we have massive organisations in Sahel and sub Sahel employed to poison their main food sources and the very real danger of electrocutions from poorly designed poles.

During her stay she got to meet a great many guests at the centre. We named her Anna-Maria, a classic Spanish name, after a visiting Financial Times reporter’s mother. Dr Paula Kahumbu was profiled in that newspaper holding Anna-Maria perched on her hand pointing out that conservation wasn’t all Big Five. Dr Juliet Waiyaki joined us to focus on raptor surgery and medicine and like everyone else took a special interest in “Anna-Maria”, constantly dashing out during the extraordinary heat wave to spray her.

Anna-Maria will need to be very fit before release. She has one of the harshest migrations of all raptors to undertake. To get falcons fit is easy, you just train them, in this case to the swung lure. If she can do 50 stoops without panting then she is good to go. But this adds a delay. It also lowers her body weight to normal rather than fat. Migrant falcons pile on fat before migration (Amur Falcons sometimes weigh twice their lean body weight prior to migration). Eleonora’s Falcons have only very rarely been trained.

Being very aerial and hobby-like they are almost certain to vanish especially if thunderclouds beckon. Interestingly she isn’t the first rehab Eleonora’s in Kenya as one went to the Croydon Museum Nairobi in the late 1940s, just after WWII and was given to Gerald Summers by Dr Louis Leakey.He flew her with little trouble but complained about her (named Karen), being easily distracted and getting out of control. He caught a few bats with her, a trait I have witnessed in wild Eleonora’s too. Gerald Summers finally lost Karen over the Channel from the Lewes Downs after he returned to the UK, surmising I think correctly, that she could easily find her way home to her Mediterranean islands.

I don’t want to keep Anna-Maria any longer than I need to. She takes up a lot of time and I am very busy. As I write European Bee-eaters are flocking overhead with some Steppe Buzzards and a few Hobbies. The move North is on. Anna-Maria sits outside with 4 primaries and 10 (out of 12) tail feathers to grow through before departure and that small window may well close before she can go.

Anna Maria looking much smarter on 9th March 2023 with a set of new feathers. Two primaries on each side have yet to grow in, and those two solid grey unbarred tail feathers are alone; needing 5 on each side to grow in. As of now, the 20th March she hasn’t grown them in.

I will have to set aside two weeks at a minimum for her training and that will be hard to do. I have weeks to go before it is too late; before the majority of Eleonora’s fly through the Rift Valley going north during the rain storms that are vital for their survival. Given that the last few years have had very poor rain and that the land is a desert from enormous herds of livestock being moved to wherever there is grass I may consider plan B.

Plan B is to keep her till the short rains in October, when apparently we will have huge downpours and floods, and release her to complete her migration south to Madagascar. When it comes to rehab, part of the benefits we as humans can bestow on a raptor’s struggle for survival is that we can look at satellite imagery and weather predictions and plan accordingly. But there is a deeper message. Climate Change is real and it has severe life threatening consequences on raptors, especially migrant species flying in and out of Africa across the world’s largest most rapidly growing desert.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Understand - Protect - Restore

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