Red-Footed Falcon Makes Its Western Hemisphere Debut
By CORNELIA DEAN
Published: August 12, 2004
EDGARTOWN, Mass., Aug. 11 - E. Vernon Laux was out with a group of
birders on Martha's Vineyard on Sunday when he saw what he thought
might be a small falcon, an American kestrel. But it did not look
right. It did not have any red in its tail, the way those kestrels do,
and anyway it was too big.
Maybe, Mr. Laux recalled thinking, it was a Mississippi kite. That
would be unusual, a first for the Vineyard. But the bird's legs were
reddish, not yellowish like a kite's, and it was hovering. He had never
seen a Mississippi kite hover.
So Mr. Laux, an ornithologist who has led birding trips all over the
world, recruited island friends with telescopes and digital cameras to
send images of the bird to Jeremiah Trimble, an expert birder and
curatorial assistant at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. When
Mr. Trimble arrived at his office on Tuesday, he looked at the photos,
consulted his reference materials and left immediately for Martha's
Vineyard. Mr. Laux had spotted a red-footed falcon - Falco vespertinus
- the first reported in the Western Hemisphere. And now birders from
all over are arriving to see it.
On Wednesday afternoon a few dozen were set up with binoculars,
telescopes and cameras at the Katama Airfield, a flat expanse of grass
serving private planes and sightseeing biplanes. The birders were
focusing on a yellow taxiway sign on the other end of a grassy runway
where the falcon, a grayish bird with reddish legs, about the size of a
long, skinny blue jay, sat munching on a grasshopper.
One of the observers was David Sibley, creator of an encyclopedic
series of books on birds, who also heard about the bird on Tuesday. "I
found out what the earliest ferry was and came right over," said Mr.
Sibley, who lives in Concord, Mass. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Mr. Sibley said the bird was male, just over a year old. "It still has
the feathers that have the pattern of juvenile feathers," he said.
Red-footed falcons winter in southern and western Africa and breed in
Eastern Europe, principally in Russia, Mr. Laux said. No one can say
how the bird got here, but this species is adapted for long-distance
flying. It may have come from Africa on trade winds or storm winds, and
made its way north from South America. Or it could have come across the
North Atlantic from England, Ireland or Iceland, where red-footed
falcons have been spotted sporadically in recent years.
"Birds rely on instinct to navigate,'' Mr. Sibley said, "and sometimes
it just goes wrong."
Wayne R. Petersen, chairman of the Massachusetts Avian Records
Committee, said the group and its national equivalent, the checklist
committee of the American Ornithological Union, would make the formal
determination that the bird is indeed what the birders think it is.
"Lots more people who are completely knowledgeable will have an
opportunity to weigh in on this," said Mr. Petersen, who observed the
bird on Wednesday. He noted, though, that the bird had been extensively
photographed and observed by experts and that there did not seem to be
any signs it escaped from captivity, something that would invalidate
it as a famous first. The red-footed falcon is not much used in
falconry because it feeds primarily on insects, he said, and this
particular bird is not banded and does not show patterns of feather
wear typical of birds that have been caged.
Mr. Petersen, formerly a field ornithologist for the Massachusetts
Audubon Society, works for the Swarovski Birding Community, an
organization set up by Swarovski, the Austrian maker of binoculars and
telescopes, to encourage birding.
Later, the birders took a lunch break at Whosie's, the snack bar at the
edge of the runway, where Mr. Laux reproached himself for not spotting
the bird immediately as a visitor from far out of town.
No, the others told him, he should congratulate himself for picking up
on the clues that even experienced birders might have missed - and
"I might have seen it," said Sally Anderson, one of the birders Mr.
Laux recruited as a photographer, who had been birding in the area a
few days before. "Lots of birders might have seen it."
Across the room, another diner, her binoculars around her neck, was
talking on her cellphone. "Oh, my God, yes, I saw it!" she exclaimed.
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