The first Western Palearctic Amur Falcon: in France, Yorkshire and Dumfries and Galloway, an update

The first Amur Falcon for Britain (pending acceptance) was present at Tophill Low Reservoir (East Yorkshire) from Sunday 14th September until Thursday 16th October 2008. Only identified for what it was after departure, it's sure to have been the biggest dip of the year for some. This article was first published back in July 2005, but following recent events we thought it would be interesting to revisit and update it.

Following the recent Swedish record of a male Amur Falcon (30th June-1st July 2005), rumours have been rife concerning a possible British record. In an effort to set the story straight, the BTO Ringing Unit can tell the story of this possible first for the Western Palaearctic.

Amur Falcon: Dumfries and Galloway, 1984. (Photo: James F. Young)

The records of the BTO Ringing Scheme include two ring recoveries in the UK of a French-ringed Red-footed Falcon. These recoveries were looked at recently whilst I was collating records for publication and something didn't seem right. Firstly, neither record appeared to have been submitted to the BBRC, and we only had scant information on the bird's origins. Subsequent research into these recoveries (and the original ringing record) resulted in a rather surprising conclusion, as it appeared that this bird was indeed an Amur Falcon. Amur Falcon (or Eastern Red-footed Falcon as it is sometimes called) was formerly considered the eastern race of Red-footed Falcon, but is now widely treated as a species in its own right.

The first the BTO heard of this bird was a typed letter on 5th September 1984 reporting a male Sparrowhawk found stunned on a road in Brandsby, near Easingwold in North Yorkshire. It had been hit by a car (on an unknown date) but later had recovered enough to be released. We duly sent the information to the French Ringing Scheme, but before we received a reply the bird was amazingly reported a second time.

On 17th September 1984 it was shot by a gamekeeper near Thornhill in Dumfries and Galloway after he'd seen it flying round an estate. Realising it was ringed, the gamekeeper would only agree to hand over the bird for inspection and photography if it were reported as "found dead". After agreeing, the body was shown to several local birders and photographed the next day. Following this the body was sent to a local taxidermist, but in a final twist, was lost when a new house owner had it destroyed!

The ringing details were eventually received from the French Ringing Scheme, but these did not tell the whole story. After investigation by various parties in France, it turns out that this bird had originally been brought to a UNCS rehabilitation centre (the French equivalent of the RSPCA) at Tonnein in southwest France on 12th May 1984. We've yet to find out why the bird was brought to the centre, but are still working on it. After 10 weeks at the centre it was finally ringed (as a Red-footed Falcon) and released on 25th July 1984 (ring number FU51966).

It was whilst researching these two records that MG was sent a copy of one of these photographs taken of the bird, and was rather surprised to find that it was in fact a very obvious male Amur Falcon! This then raised more questions about why this bird hadn't been submitted to BBRC. The status of these records is thus still pending, as neither were submitted to BBRC.

If accepted, these records would constitute the first for the Western Palearctic, though there have since been a number of May records from the Straits of Messina (between Italy and Sicily) since 1995 (though only three have been accepted by the Italian Rarities Committee: a male on 29th April 1995, female on 4th May 1997 and male on 19th May 1998), and there are unconfirmed reports from Israel and Tunisia (and now the recent Swedish sighting which was well watched and photographed).

Amur Falcon breeds in northeastern Asia, from Transbaikalia, southeast Siberia to northeast Mongolia and Amurland, south to northeast China and North Korea, and the population has apparently recently been increasing. In Hong Kong it is now an annual migrant, with around 50 records in the last four years, in comparison to less than five prior to that. The whole population migrates across the Indian Ocean to winter in southern Africa, from Malawi to eastern South Africa. The return migration in spring is thought to be along the East African and Arabian coasts. There have been vagrant records in the 1990s from Socotra, UAE and Ethiopia.

Amur Falcon: Oman. (Photo: Colin Murray) Amur Falcon: Oman. (Photo: Colin Murray)

The identification of Amur Falcon is covered in depth by Corso and Clark in Birding World 11: 261-268. Adult males are easily separated by white underwing-coverts. They also have paler grey cheeks and there is contrast with a darker grey moustachial stripe. The underparts are also paler than similarly aged Red-footed Falcon. From above, Amur Falcons have a pale grey tail which lacks contrast with the lower back; on Red-footed Falcon the tail is blackish and contrasts with the paler lower back.

Females and juveniles are more problematic. Adult female can be told from juvenile Red-footed Falcon by their bluish-grey upperparts, barred flanks and ochre wash on the thigh and undertail coverts. The underparts of female and juvenile Amur Falcon are white, compared to the buff underparts of juvenile Red-footed Falcon and this difference is also apparent on the underwing coverts. Adult females show whitish underwing-coverts with sparse markings. The underwing-coverts of juveniles are more heavily marked, thus resembling Red-footed Falcon. First-summer males are similar to first-summer male Red-footed Falcon, but the underwing-coverts and underparts are streaked with blackish and the belly is often streaked with blackish. First-summer females are almost identical to females. Juveniles have bluish-grey crown and upperparts with a rufous wash. Some can appear brownish to dark sandy on the upperparts. The blackish moustache is often longer and more tapering than juvenile Red-footed Falcon. The underparts and underwing coverts are streaked with blackish, though there can be overlap and some cannot be identified with certainty.


Since this article was originally published, further information has come to light about the origin of this bird in France. Frédéric Jiguet has commented: "I managed to get in touch with Alain Dalmolin, the man who found, took care and released the male Amur Falcon that further reached the UK. On 12th May 1984, while inspecting the Rocher des Aigles ("Eagle Rock", a bird of prey centre) at Rocamadour, in Lot department, Alain Dalmolin found a pair of "Red-footed" Falcons in a cage, and the owner of the centre immediately asked him to take the pair back to his care centre. He said he obtained them from Sète, in Hérault department, but there are no details on how he obtained them. The birds were not injured, their tail tips were damaged, and the birds were not able to fly (because of prolonged captivity according to A. Dalmolin's expertise). Alain Dalmolin kept the birds in care until they were able to fly, i.e. 10 weeks later. They were released together on 25th July 1984."

Written by: Mark Grantham and Russell Slack