Karearea: a photo-diary

For the past four months or so, I have spent much of my time watching the watchful karearea (New Zealand Falcon – Falco novaeseelandiae).

Stillness and patience allowed me to observe their progress through aerial courtship displays, mating, nest finding, laying, incubating, hatching, brooding and feeding, to finally fledging a chick.

Ironically, after all that devotion, a falcon season ends when the parents drive their youngster away to seek a territory of its own.

Birds on the menu

New Zealand falcons feed mostly on other birds, which meant not everyone was happy to see a pair of such efficient predators make their home in the ZEALANDIA valley at Karori.

The sanctuary is also home to other threatened native species such as tieke (saddleback), hihi (stitchbird) and kakariki (red-crowned parakeet) . . . all natural prey for karearea.

But predators play an important role in the ecosystem, weeding out weakness and maintaining balance. They take their prey on the wing in swift dives, off the ground, and even by flying through branches and pouncing.

And while some native birds were taken, including kakariki, toutouwai and popokatea, the vast majority of prey I saw brought back to the nest were starlings, along with a mixture of blackbirds, finches and thrushes – all introduced species.

Photo: Steve Attwood

Photo: Steve Attwood

Sex in the air!

The photo on the left hit the headlines. It was blurry, it was grainy, it was blown up out of a tiny part of a distant shot . . . but it had sex appeal!

They were dancing together high above the sanctuary valley, swapping food mid-flight, looping the loop, performing mock attack dives on each other, and engaging in spiraling paired dives as they renewed their bonds.

Falcons, like many birds of prey, are monogamous and pair for life, but renew their “vows” with a seasonal courtship.

Their aerial ballet was too distant to photograph. But I followed a couple into their tall-pine valley and got this photo of them mating. It appeared on the Stuff website with an ‘explicit’ warning, and attracted thousands of views, and a great many comments.

A new generation was on its way, and a new love affair was born – not the falcons with each other, but mine with them. We were to be constant companions for the next four months.

The pair selected a small valley surrounded by old pines, which offered a multitude of perches for devouring food and watching.
I set up perch and watched the watchful. Karearea spend a great deal of time watching.

Much time was spent selecting the nest site (by both sexes) between frequent bouts of mating, and regular offers of ‘gifts’ by him to her, of prey.

Eventually, a site under a large felled log with a natural bowl lined with pine needles was chosen. She visited it many times, clearing, scratching and generally satisfying herself it was the right place. He visited less often, but seemed to concur with her selection.

By late July the female had settled into a pattern of spending long hours in the nest under the log. The male brought her food, and took long turns fulfilling his fatherly duties. It was obvious an egg had been laid and the shared duty of incubation was being taken very seriously.

Late August and the food-deliveries by the male stepped up and he was most anxious to take time on the nest. But, whereas earlier she had been happy for him to take his turn, now she denied him. She would fly out to take food off him and then go straight back to the scrape. In spite of intense mewling and begging from him, his efforts to take a turn were denied. A chick was in the nest!

The chick with its fligth feathers poking through the down. Photo: Steve Attwood

The chick with its flight feathers poking through the down. Photo: Steve Attwood

On 7 September the chick was judged to be about 10 days old, big enough to be banded (just!). Weight, bill and leg measurements suggested it was a male. The other egg failed to hatch. When the chick was returned to the scrape after banding I was allowed to grab one, very quick, photo.

For a week or two only the female fed and brooded the youngster. But its demands soon outstripped the hunting abilities of the male alone, and she began to join him in the cycle of hunting and feeding, though still taking the lion’s share of actual in-nest time with the chick.

This forthright mother also preferred to feed the chick and would frequently demand the food off the male. Soon the growing chick was venturing out from under the log to sit, and eat, in the sun, its down rapidly being replaced by juvenile feathers.

In only four weeks the tiny fluff ball of white down, small enough to cup in the hollow of one hand (with room to spare!) turned into a sleek, fully feathered raptor. It would career swiftly through the trees of its birth valley, making mock dive attacks on its parents as it began to master the serious art of hunting.

Cats ‘n’ rats, people ‘n’ power lines

Karearea are a nationally threatened species because of predation by introduced pests (cats, rats, stoats, dogs etc) and illegal persecution by humans. Despite gaining full protection in 1970, they’re still sometimes illegally shot by rural dwellers and farmers who are protective of their bird-stock, or have a misguided fear their lambs will be fall prey to this airborne hunter.

Surprisingly this anti-raptor attitude is sometimes observed even among otherwise passionate “greenies”. Some people thought the ZEALANDIA karearea should be ”put down” or at least “moved on” (somehow) because of their threat to the other rare natives in the valley, not realising that the interrelationship between hunters and prey helps keep an ecosystem, and prey populations themselves, healthy and balanced.

The final blow to karearea is the death trap that is our power-lines. Karearea like a vantage point and power-lines offer a welcome perch. The trouble lies in the fact that birds of this size can touch both lines, short the circuit and electrocute themselves. A five year study by the Wingspan Trust tracked karearea using GPS systems and showed that 47% of the 21 birds tracked were electrocuted. In various countries overseas, power-lines have been widened by power companies to allow of the safe passage of larger birds, however despite public pressure from lobby groups such as the Wingspan Trust, our power companies refuse to improve the situation.

Even if all these problems are solved, karearea are unlikely to ever be common, as a single pair requires a large territory, meaning the birds are widely dispersed and there are few per region compared to other species of birds in the same space. For instance, one karearea pair’s territory is large enough for some 400 little spotted kiwi and hundreds more of each of the other smaller bird species.

Fierce defenders

Another reason karearea are killed is because they will readily attack people, especially in breeding season. The karearea at ZEALANDIA had a keen perception of what was “their” space and allowed observers very close if we were quiet and moved slowly.

But a terrifying dive-bomb attack was instantly perpetrated on those who, usually unwittingly, stepped across the invisible line that the falcons regarded as marking the edge of their territory. It was easy to work out where that line was and stay behind it.

They saved their most savage attacks, however, for other birds. Potential predators such as karoro (black backed gulls), kahu (harriers) and even kaka were mobbed ceaselessly, feathers flying until the unwanted birds were driven off.

Karearea nest in a scrape in grassy soil or humus in various locations: under a rock on a steep slope or on a rock ledge, among epiphytic plants on a tree branch, or under a log or branch on the ground. In such sites chicks and eggs are vulnerable to introduced predators, so this fierce defense is understandable.

How fast?Nearly every reference to the speed of a falcon attack quotes the peregrine falcon, which is a record holding speedster with recorded power dives of more than 200kph. While there seems to be no record of any attempt to measure the fastest speed that karearea can attain during level or diving/stooping hunting flight, they are not thought to be as fast as peregrine.

Richers Seaton, Research Development Manager at Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust in Rotorua said that karearea usually hunts like an accipiter – employing surprise attacks from perches and hunting flight using cover. Not relying on all out speed, karearea are far more manoeuvrable than peregrine and have short, relatively deep rounded wings, a long tail and have not developed the stiff feathers found in birds that stoop/dive for a living.

However despite their prowess as an aerial acrobat and skilled hunter, these birds – like many other native birds – face a daily battle against predators, a dwindling habitat and on top of this illegal hunting by farmers.

My four-month-vigil month watching over the birth of the next generation of karearea is a must-do for any conservationist because it illustrates the painstaking dedication of these parents.

Laying, incubating, hatching, brooding and feeding, to finally fledging a chick – the karearea mollycoddles its chicks like no other native which makes their predation by man and mustelid alike that much more poignant.

Please noteKarearea: A photo essay is an excerpt from Steve Attwood’s blog on karearea.

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4 Comments

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  1. March 6, 2012 9:10 pm
    Lisa Bearsley says

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It was a joy to read and sounds like an amazing journey.

  2. March 7, 2012 7:27 pm
    Judith.shearer says

    Superb.
    your plain language description of the behaviors, conservation risks and what I could do to help is just great . Thanks so much.

  3. May 9, 2012 12:53 pm
    Sonia Corbett says

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful photos and observations with us.

  4. May 14, 2012 10:22 am
    Dennis Dickinson says

    A superb, informative, article, complete with illustrations.

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