Monday 31 August 2015

Finches & A Falcon

I mentioned in the last post that we saw a second New Zealand Falcon on our road trip over Danseys Pass, the first was chasing a smaller bird down a narrow gully, they disappeared over a rise at great speed and we didn’t see the outcome of that battle. The second happened when we stopped at Kyeburn Diggings to watch three Australian Harrier Hawks/Kahu swooping and diving through thousands of finches which were feeding on the seeded grasses that were growing in a paddock of winter stock feed.

These photos were taken a few days later, after the snow fall, when we went back to see if we could spot the falcon again and even though they’re not the best photos, they’ll give you an indication of the sheer numbers of finches that were feeding over the paddock- the next two photos are full of finches, right to the bottom of the photo (click to enlarge)

These are mostly Redpoll Finches with a few Goldfinches scattered in amongst them with slightly larger (and possibly slower flying) Chaffinches around the periphery of the flocks. Redpolls are the smallest of New Zealand’s introduced finches and are widespread throughout the South Island but not so abundant up north.

There were thousands of birds lifting and swooping, swirling and landing for a moment before lifting again. The chatter and wing noise was amazing and no matter how often I tried to catch them up close they spooked, with the hawks hunting through the masses, they were on full alert.

I managed to catch a few birds as they stopped briefly on some bushes nearby- a lone male goldfinch at the top left and the rest are redpolls. When mature, both sexes have the red patch on their heads (poll) with just the males having the colour on their lower throat and chest after their second year moult. Juveniles have no colouration. Without these photos it was extremely hard to identify the birds, they were so fast and quite a distance away. We couldn’t keep up with them even with the binoculars.

While we were watching the hawks swooping over and scattering the flock a slightly smaller, faster bird came flying through, swooped up and landed awkwardly at the top of a tall poplar tree just behind us.

At first we thought it was one of the hawks and as we trained the camera & binoculars on it, it still took us a few seconds to realise with stunned disbelief and great delight that is was a NZ Falcon/Karearea.

Falcons are one of only two New Zealand endemic birds of prey- the other being the native owl, the Morepork/Ruru. Falcons are found throughout New Zealand but are quite rare. The NZ Falcon is one of the fastest falcons in the world capable of flying at up to 200 km/h, they hunt live prey mainly by watching from a vantage point and making a fast direct flying attack striking or grasping the prey with their sharp talons and killing with a powerful bite to the neck. They’re capable of catching prey larger than themselves but their diet mainly consists of small birds.

She (or he- the males are quite a bit smaller but without a comparison we couldn’t tell) couldn’t get a good perch where it had landed and lifted off (slightly out of focus, these photos are at the end of my zoom lens and have been cropped)

To land in the top of the poplar next door….

….where it still had trouble holding on….

…it hopped about from one foot to the other…

…bounced up in the air….

…tried once again…

…before deciding this wasn’t the best vantage point to wait before the next dinner dash…

…so lifted off heading to the right….

…before changing direction and sweeping around and dropping into a spectacular stooping dive back over the paddock scattering thousands of finches along the way.

She disappeared along the river at the end of the paddock and we didn’t see her again, even though we returned a few days later where we found the hawks still working the field.

It was another thrilling encounter with a rare and endangered bird and extra special that we were able to watch it for a good minute or so before it moved on. Most of our sightings recently have been very brief and usually on the wing except for our first encounter on the Catlins River back at the beginning of our travels.


  1. Awesome photos, again Shellie, must have been on fast shuttler settings and or burst or similar.
    Now back in NZ,. Just posed up another blog where I mention eagles and falcons....not what you'd expect!
    No need to say... keep up the good work!

  2. Welcome home Jimu, I must read your blog. I have limited internet at the moment but will follow up soon. No quick burst either (I have a slow burst setting which it was on but it should have been the quick burst) and the shutter quite slow at 1/400. It's so hard to quickly change settings when confronted with an unusual situation but at least I got some decent shots.


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