Sooty Falcon in Israel

Meidad Goren 10/01/2019 00:00

It's a beautiful autumn afternoon deep in the remotest part of the Negev desert. Here we are, two teams; Ohad Hatzofe and Asaf Mayrose, two of the raptors authorities in Israel, are sat on a high hill. Two km to the east is where we, Zehava, the INPA (Israeli Nature and Parks Authorities) local ecologist, Yedidya, the local ranger and I decided to locate our observation point until dusk. Our aim is to scan the sky and search for one elusive bird - the Sooty Falcon.

 

 

Male Sooty Falcon and it's prey - Barn Swallow - calling the female     Photo: Meidad Goren

 

A few minutes pass by and eyes still in the telescope, I report 'Two sooties over there!'. The two birds were flying fast some 3km away. Before I know it, Zehava jumps up and down "There are two more right here, are they sooties too?". I turn my head and what do you know, 200 meters from us a pair of adults are chasing an unlucky House Martin. It couldn't get any better than that! Two pairs within a few minutes.

Well, apparently, it could. Assaf calls and reports at least another bird to the north and two to the east, probably the same ones we saw. We are still scoping and scanning the area. It's a vast area. Then, just before dark I spot another three sooties way south east of us. We pack our gear and drive to a nearby campsite. Amazingly, all these pairs we saw that afternoon were known pairs we found back in 2011 during our breeding survey.  

 

Sooty Falcons Falco concolor are fantastic birds! Not only do they carry out a magnificent migration to Madagascar, they also feed on other migrating birds, almost exclusively. How cool is that?

 

2CY Sooty Falcon

Photo: Meidad Goren

 

Studies have shown that the world population of this medium-sized falcon is decreasing. The draft International Single Species Action Plan estimates a total breeding population of 1,400-2,000 pairs equating to 2,800-4,000 mature individuals (BirdLife International, 2019). It is listed as Globally Vulnerable which means it is under quiet a serious threat.  

 

The Sooty Falcon was considered to be a very rare breeder in Israel until the 1970's when it was discovered to be more common than believed. A survey conducted by Dr. Ron Frumkin in the early 1980's estimated the local population at 100 pairs (Frumkin and Pinshow, 1983).

Back in 2011 when I returned to Israel to work with desert birds and to found the Ramat HaNegev Birding Center, one of my first questions was 'What is the state of the Sooty Falcon population in Israel?'. Apparently there has been no study done since the 1980's. It was time to check. In collaboration with INPA and Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel we initiated a four-year census which covered the whole of the Israeli desert region: the Negev, Judean Desert and Eilat region.

 

 

Scaning the desert for Sooties    Photo: Meidad Goren

 

So how did we survey 2/3 of the country?

We had to use the most efficient methods to find the birds. That was a big challenge! This bird is 35 cm long with a wingspan of 90 cm. The Negev is huge. 12,500 km². So where does one begin?

At that point Barak Granit joined me to help plan, design and execute the census. There were two main aims to the study: to ascertain what is the current population size in Israel, and to design a long-term monitoring plan to detect trends.

We started planning to study in August 2011. I met with Dr. Ron Frumkin who ran the survey back in the early 1980's. He generously gave me all his data.  We then mapped all the known sightings from the last 30 years and based on our knowledge of the area we drafted the survey plan for the first year. This was going to be the first of four wonderful years in which we spent many days in the field, covered all the Israeli desert, from the northern part of the Judean Desert all the way south to Eilat.

 

 

Preparing for take off - young Sooty Falcon        Photo: Meidad Goren

 

However, it wasn’t all that easy. It took us time to learn what the best practice for locating falcons was. We realized that searching for the birds during the first half of their late breeding season, in July-August, was pointless.

The birds spend most of the time perched or incubating (August), plus it is incredibly hot! Temperatures often soar above 45⁰C.  However, we worked hard and managed to find ways to spot the birds.

 

Aeriel Aducation - Adult below

Photo: Meidad Goren

 

Eventually we understood that it was most efficient to search for sooties in September and October, when feeding activity peaks and they are very vocal and active. I was fortunate to spend the first couple of seasons with Barak. I learned some skills from my sharp-eyed friend who managed to find sooties in the air some 5km away!! Years later when I managed to find birds flying at the same distance I was grateful for the time we spent together

 

We divided the desert to 12 regions. Every year we studied different regions. In some cases we came back to the same region just to recheck it. We also collected incidental reports and included them after verifying their authenticity. Even after observing the birds it was rather difficult to analyze what we saw, almost like a puzzle game. Some of the birds hunt miles from their nest and following them was necessary to establish where their territory was. We quickly figured out that we couldn’t look for nests, but need to focus on adults active in their territories. In this vast land of cliffs and canyons, the only way was to understand how many territories were in the area by tracing and tracking adults and understanding their behavior

 

 

 

Schlafstunde      Photo: Eyal Bartov

 

The main bulk of the work was done by myself and Barak but I was assisted by many more good people who volunteered to help. We checked new areas which have never been studied before and found many new territories.

Our results show that the Sooty Falcon population in Israel constitutes 75-92 pairs. This confidence range reflects the number of territories we found and the estimated number of territories we didn’t find but most probably contain pairs based on casual observation. This total is 4-7% of the estimated global population. The results are similar to those of the 1980's survey, but our study covered a much larger area, and we found low densities in regions where previously high densities were found Therefore, our results indicate a significant overall decline.

 

 

Incoming!     Photo: Meidad Goren

 

In some areas where densities decreased we noticed environmental changes that may relate to these declines. A fast growing motorized tourism in areas that were once remote could well have a negative influence on Sooty Falcon breeding success.

 

Barak and myself (wearing my famous hat)

Photo: Yasmin Shtainitz

 

At the end of the study we presented the results to INPA with our long-term monitoring plan. Our pan was accepted and we have been monitoring the Sooty Falcons since.

As I was sitting quietly on top of the cliff, watching the falcons hunt above my head and then flying to the nest to feed the chicks, I thought to myself 'Well, it looks like this pair is going to fledge its three chicks successfully'. But the challenge 'my' falcons face are huge.  They need to cross the harsh deserts and hostile lands of Africa, avoid being hunted, survive the winter in Madagascar or South Africa and then migrate all the way back to the Negev to try and raise another brood. It is all so fragile and all we could do is hope that they will succeed.  

 

 

 

And as she arrives - he "hand" over his catch    Photo: Meidad Goren

 

References:

 

1. Frumkin, R., Pinshaw, B. 1983. Notes on the breeding ecology and distribution of Sooty Falcon Falco concolor in Israel. Ibis 125: 251-259.

 

2. BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Falco concolor. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 07/01/2019.

 

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