As I write this report (May 2002) there is great excitement about a Lesser Kestrel on the Isles of Scilly; this athletic little falcon conjures up for me a sighting so engraved in my memory that I like to share it. Twenty years ago in January 1979 I was working in East Africa when my brother visited us in Dar es Salaam. Visitors furnish an irresistible excuse for a safari up-country, and I took this opportunity to make my first visit to the legendary Ngorongoro Crater and the plains of the Serengeti.
Land Rover borrowed, cameras and binoculars at the ready, we headed due west and turned right at Chalinze and headed north for the YMCA at Moshi for our first night's stay. There is lots to see en route but it is not until you leave the cosmopolitan town of Arusha behind and see the Great Rift Valley ahead of you that you quite grasp the splendour of the East African Plains. Giraffe family to the left, Grant's and Thompson's Gazelles to the right, Secretary Birds patrolling the roadside verges for recent casualties...
Just a few miles into the bush we stopped in amazement — thousands and thousands of small birds of prey occupied every inch of every strung wire; every possible perch was tenanted by Lesser Kestrels. Every so often one would flutter down to the ground and demolish a locust or two. It was an incredible sight — just how many were there and how long they stopped on their southern migration I have no idea. This particular area does not get a mention in any bird book I have seen on East Africa and I think this concentration was exceptional.
So, you will forgive me for not getting quite so excited as most when a single lost soul of a bird turns up in the Scillies!
I had seen Red-backed Shrike only in guide books to the birds of Britain — from the Observer's Book of Birds to The Birds of the Western Palearctic — but never in the flesh, so to speak. One morning in November nineteen seventy something, I took my usual morning perambulation around the sewage farm next to the Botanical Gardens, attached to the University of Dar es Salaam, before going to work in the city. To my delight and surprise in every bush which was not more than about a metre and a half in stature there was a pair of these lovely shrikes. At the time I had been spoilt by the very much more colourful East African members of the genus — the Sulphur-breasted and Four-coloured Bush Shrikes for example — but nevertheless the Red-backed, which might be seen by the very lucky in Blighty, was a sight to behold. Without exception, as in the bird books of the day, there was the male in the upper part of the bush, and the somewhat drab female about half a metre below. Sixty pairs were seen that morning, 20 the following, and all had departed by the time the week was out. Occasional pairs were seen subsequently but the fall of 100+ was not repeated in the five years of my employment at the University.