Red-footed Falcon at Biggin (SE53)

Sometimes, the discovery of a rare bird can be attributed to a fortuitous chain of events.

On 15th June, Craig Storton, a birdwatcher and bird photographer chatted to a farmer near the small village of Biggin, in the southwest of the York Ornithological Club’s recording area. The farmer commented that he had seen ‘a falcon with a white head’ recently. Craig decided to check this out and to his delight found the bird still present, sitting on wires near the farm. Being quite confiding Craig managed to get some great photos. He suspected the bird was a Red-footed Falcon and that evening sent the photos to a few friends and acquaintances to check his identification. One recipient was Paul Doherty who immediately confirmed the bird’s identity; but it was too late to do anything about it, being dark. Paul then emailed Jono Leadley, the YOC Bird Recorder with Craig’s photos and some details. The falcon had been present on the wires until 8.45pm but had been lost flying off to the north.

It seemed that the third Red-footed Falcon of the spring had slipped through the fingers of most local birders! Earlier in the spring, a male Red-foot had been seen with a group of Hobbies feeding over the pool at Wheldrake Ings, by Mikey Naylor, Craig Ralston and Nick Carter. Sadly, the bird didn’t linger, and Coronavirus lockdown prevented local birders searching the area. A little later as lockdown eased, Dave Waudby had a distant view of what he considered to be a female Red-footed Falcon over Aughton, looking north from North Duffield Carrs. Several local birders sprang into action and grilled the Lower Derwent Valley, but unfortunately the bird could not be relocated. The last accepted record for the York area was back in 2008 at Howden, so it really was about time there was a bird that stayed put long enough for local birders to catch up with it!

2CY Female Red-footed Falcon © Jono Leadley, June 2020

On Tuesday 16th June, Jono received the news on his early morning dog walk and decided it had to be worth a look. He realised it could well be a fruitless trip and his second failure to relocate a Red-foot in the York area this spring and the misty conditions would really hamper the search. Jono tried the lanes and fields around the Biggin area to the east of Sherburn-in-Elmet without success, widening the search to Little Fenton and Ryther, all to no avail. Giving the original area one last try, before heading back home to work, Jono spotted a large raptor circling low over a crop field, so he pulled up to investigate. Not a Marsh Harrier as he’d hoped, but a fine Red Kite. However, he noticed a falcon sitting on the wires in the distance – and the hunched, long-winged jizz looked good for a Red-foot! Within moments Jono had got his scope up, which revealed the pale buffy head and dark grey mantle of a Red-footed Falcon! Fantastic! Having put the news out to the local grapevine and news services, Jono shot round to the farm track which lead to the kennels and the farm to get a closer look.

The bird was very confiding and after a brief hunting foray into the field for a beetle flew towards Jono and landed on the telephone wires. The buffy head and underparts identified the bird as a female; both adult and first-summer males would be predominantly blue-grey on the head and underparts, while her age was confirmed as a first-summer (second calendar-year) by the paleness of her head and underparts and fine streaking along the sides of the breast. On these closer views, the bird’s tertials could be seen to be worn juvenile feathers. Meanwhile, Craig arrived; he had been watching the bird from his car. The two did a socially-distanced high five and enjoyed lovely views of the bird hunting from the wires at close range.

Within 20 minutes the first local birders began to arrive on the scene and shared the enjoyment of this great bird. At about 10.35am after a tussle with a male Kestrel, the bird unexpectedly flew steadily off northeast and disappeared into the distance. Would this be the last we would see of her? It seemed so, and despite a number of people searching the area, she did not reappear that day. It was then with great relief to those who missed her on the Tuesday, that she was back on her favourite wires the following morning and showed on and off for most of the day, sometimes going missing for a few hours, possibly to rest up in nearby trees between bouts of feeding, or possibly to drink and bathe.

At the time of writing, Thursday 18th June, the Red-foot has become somewhat of a celebrity with many birders making the trip to Biggin to admire her. The farmer informed Craig that she had been present about a week, so it looks like she is settled in the area and feeding well, so she may well be around for a little while yet. The ghost of those missed Red-foots can finally and firmly be laid to rest.

Red-footed Falcons breed in eastern Europe and Asia, wintering in Africa. Their migratory behaviour results in them being a regular overshoot to Britain, particularly in spring when their migration takes a more westerly route. In some years when there are prolonged south-easterly or easterly winds, good numbers can turn up, with 1992 being a particularly memorable influx, resulting in the second confirmed record for the York area, at Fulford Golf Course. Good numbers have been found in Britain this year, despite the limitations of lockdown, with lingering birds at various sites including Thorne Moors in South Yorkshire. This small falcon is mostly insectivorous, catching dragonflies and other insects in flight, in the manner of a Hobby, but also hunting from a perch, shrike-like, which seems to be the favoured mode of the Biggin individual. She has been seen to take beetles and earthworms and apparently has been klepto-parasitising the local Blackbirds and robbing them of their worms!

Hopefully this Red-foot will remain a little longer allowing others the chance to see this cracking species in the York area.

Previous accepted records of Red-footed Falcon in the York area are:

  • Howden Station, first-summer male from 26 to 27th May 2008
  • North Duffield Carrs, female, 19th May 2002
  • Fulford Golf Course, female, 25th June 1992
  • Brandsby, 5th September 1984 – hit by a car.

Birders wishing to see the Red-footed Falcon should check @yorkbirding for news. On site, please do not drive or park on the farm track leading to the kennels. You may walk on this as it is a public footpath but please leave your car on the wide grass verge at the entrance to the track. Please avoid blocking the residents’ access. The bird frequents the wires around the farm, but can wander off for periods.

By Jono Leadley, Recorder