you live and you learn- Northern Peregrine Falcon

This is a very long blog, with photos, about the odd falcon at the Guadalhorce which was seen on 19 January, first by Blas López Soler who took the photos, and on 21 January by several including Bob Wright, Eric Lyon and myself. It was thought to be a Lanner Falcon by most of us and certainly it appeared most un-peregrine-like when we saw it. This prompted me to get in touch with some of the best European raptor experts, as you will see their comments at the end. Read on, McDuff, and damned be he/she who cries 'hold enough'. I shan't bame you if you give up, but it really has been a very educational exercise! Tomorrrow I shall write up what we saw and Thursday and what Bob Hibbett and I saw today, Friday. The morning of 21 January a group of birders, of whom Eric Lyon, Bob Wright and myself at least had plenty of experience of Peregrines in varous parts of the world, plus other species such as Gyr Falcon and Barbary Falcon.

The bird was seen perched in one of the eucalyptus trees, apparently the same one used when photographed by Blas and seen from the eastern embankment at a range of ca.300m but using telescopes with magnifications of up to 60x, with sunshine coming from the left. It was watched by Bob, Eric and myself for some 6-7 minutes before it dropped to the ground some 25m away from its perch, presumably on to some prey which it must have caught as it did not reappear, in spite of us waiting sometime and keeping watch throughout for it during the remaining 2 hours in the reserve.

The following description is that recorded by myself at the time and made up from the joint comments of the three of us as seen through telescopes at magnifications between 45x and 60x.

Size and jizz

Upright stance and not at all hunch-backed, it appeared rather long-necked, with head and bill clearly visible. Widest across the ‘shoulders’ and then a very tapered aspect lower body to long wings, their tips and tail being apparently the same length (see photographs). The general comment was that it was a most un-peregrine-like bird and there was no way that we were looking at a Peregrine Falcon.

- Back brown; tail not seen as obscured by wings (see photos).

- Breast with wide, clearly visible streaks which extended to lower belly and flanks; upper breast appeared unmarked; chin white.

- Face showed pale between bill and eye; a notably long, thin and pointed moustachial stripe, most unlike a Peregrine; a large, pale, off-white area between moustachial stripe and the brown towards rear side of neck.

The most intriguing part of the bird was the head pattern. It was extremely difficult to decide if the crown of the head was paler or not, but there was a hint of an eye stripe (even at 300m) also paler on the forehead. We were certain that the rear crown and nape of the neck was paler, position and light not letting us see if all the crown was pale.

When one compares what we saw with the photographs which I had not previously examined, it is obvious that the photographs give much more detail.

So, pretty well convinced that we had seen a Lanner Falcon as it was so different to any Peregrine, I set to and put out the news of it being a ‘probable’ Lanner. This, as I had hoped, elicited several replies from some very hot birders who know their raptors, in particular from Dan Zetterstrom (Sweden, co-author of the Collins Bird Guide) and Andrea Corso (Italy, who has done a lot of work on raptors in Sicily and Strait of Messina area in particular, and to Dick Forsman (Finland, author of The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East). To them I am most grateful for their comments quoted here.


From Andrea Corso: This is not a Lanner of any race... in fact, its a juvenile in fresh plumage and it show barred mark on flanks...NEVER shown by ANY Lanner when juvenile... only in adult feldeggi and few N African birds....

So, we are facing with a Peregrine for sure...only, I would like to know about its dimension and if you have or will manage to obtain any front view and underwing pattern...in fact, the tail seems to be short for a calidus, and also the whole body seems to be rather slim and small and compact...if it was rather small bird I would say a pelegrinoides, otherwise I would say a calidus !

Also, the head pattern is never shown like that in any Lanner...with this darker crown and than the broad supericlium meeting behind the head forming as a necklace around the crown.... this is very Barbary and calidus-like ….indeed calidus does not have any structure of the Peregrine most Europeans are used with...as in fact they are slender, longer tailed, longer winged, longer legged etc...as being long distance migrant...and they are confused with Lanner by 99% of WP birders...

From Dan Zetterstrom : Now I´ve had time to have a closer look at your falcon. I think we can exclude a Lanner right away because of headpattern (no dark 'tiara') and barred flanks, and concentrate on the peregrine-group. Those are really tricky and highly variable. The plumage of your bird is often regarded as typical of the calidus-type of Siberia, but a quite a few juveniles from southern Sweden is identical in this respect so I seriously question the possibility of identifying single calidus outside breeding-range. The other question is the possibility of a vagrant Barbary. Really tricky issue since this two forms seems to show a cline in plumage with only the most typical birds possible to identify. I think your bird show very light proportions with quite a large head (maybe pointing at Barbary), but this is also a feature of male Peregrines. If I had to 'vote' I would suggest a juvenile male Peregrine of northern origin.

From Dick Forsman: ….. regarding your bird, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. The bird in the pictures is a juvenile of the northern, so called calidus-type Peregrine. They are constantly misidentified as Lanners or Sakers all over Europe, much because this type of Peregrine is so poorly illustrated in the field guides. The head-pattern, the broad spots on the flanks and the rufous markings below do not fit Lanner. This individual is actually a rather average-looking calidus-type juvenile.

So, you live and you learn. If you have stuck with all this, congratulations!

All photographs by Blas López Soler on 19 Januay 2010.

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