Sooty falcon (Falco concolor)
|Size||Length: 32 – 37 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 75 – 88 cm (2)
Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
The sooty falcon is an attractive, medium-sized bird of prey with long, slender wings and a long tail (4). Although the adult plumage is mainly uniform grey, in the male it is pale with a bluish tinge, while in the female it is a darker, sooty shade. Both the flight-feathers and the area below the eyes are significantly darker than the rest of the body, and some individuals possess a small pale patch on the throat (2). In contrast to the dark plumage, the bare areas on the legs, around the base of the bill and the rim around the eyes are bright yellow (5).
The juvenile’s plumage differs quite significantly from that of the adult’s. The head and nape are light brownish, the upperparts are brownish-grey edged with yellowish-white feathers, while the underparts are brown and heavily streaked with brownish-grey (2). A dark stripe extends from the base of the bill, and the throat and lower cheeks are cream coloured (2) (5). By its first summer, the juvenile undergoes a considerable change in colouration becoming a much darker, uniform grey than the adult, with conspicuous dark barring on the undersides of the wings and tail (2).
The sooty falcon is a migratory species which breeds in scattered, highly localised colonies in north-east Africa, the Middle East and islands off the coast of south-west Pakistan (4) (6). The greatest numbers of sooty falcon are found around the Arabian Peninsula, principally on the coastal islands of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (7) (8) (9). After a lengthy migration, the majority of the population overwinters in Madagascar, although a small proportion migrates to coastal Mozambique and eastern parts of South Africa (4).
During the summer breeding season, the sooty falcon occupies cliffs, small rocky islands and desert mountains, where the climate is extremely hot and arid (4). At its wintering grounds, however, this species can be found in wooded coastal areas, open grasslands near water sources such as lakes, rivers and paddyfields, and also in towns (2) (10).
The sooty falcon is one of only six species of completely migratory birds of prey worldwide that breed in the northern hemisphere and overwinter in the southern hemisphere (11). Although sooty falcons begin to arrive at their breeding locations in the spring, around late April, they do not commence breeding until late summer (9). This delay occurs so that chick-rearing coincides with the autumn migration of small birds from cooler temperate regions in the North, which provide an abundance of food for the sooty falcon chicks (6) (12). A specialist in migratory bird hunting, the sooty falcon is generally most active at dusk and dawn, when solitary individuals can be seen perched on rocks or vegetation, scanning the sky for passing migrant birds. When a bird flies overhead, the sooty falcon rapidly takes to the air, accelerating above its prey before making a low dive and seizing it in its talons (12). Species taken include the hoopoe (Upupa epops), the European bee eater (Merops apiaster) and a variety of warblers (2) (7).
During the breeding season, sooty falcons form breeding pairs which either nest alone or in loose colonies of up to 100 pairs (12). The female lays up to four eggs in a scraped out hollow in the ground or amongst rocks, which in the summer heat may be exposed to temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius. After around a month, despite the extreme conditions, the majority of sooty falcon eggs hatch successfully (6) (7).
The breeding season ends in late October, and the adults and juveniles begin the long journey to the wintering grounds in Madagascar and southern Africa (7) (9). Here, the sooty falcon mainly subsists on large insects, but also bats and small birds (4) (5). Until recently, the route taken by the sooty falcon on its migratory journey was unclear, but in 2008, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) successfully tracked a single sooty falcon from its nest on an island in the Sila Peninsula, Abu Dhabi to Madagascar. Using satellite tracking, the study revealed that the bird flew through seven countries, covering an incredible 6,700 kilometres (9) (13).
Due to the sooty falcon’s scattered distribution and often inaccessible breeding sites, it has proven difficult to accurately assess its population (4). While previous global population estimates have given figures of around 40,000 breeding pairs, a review of Arabian census data in 2006 indicated that the population may, in fact, be as low as 1,000 pairs and in decline (4) (8). In response to this discovery, in 2008 the IUCN uplisted the sooty falcon’s threat status from Least Concern to Near Threatened (1) (4). The reasons for the sooty falcon’s global decline are currently unclear. Since many of the sooty falcon’s breeding grounds are in protected areas or are inaccessible, it has been proposed that pressures encountered at this species’ wintering grounds or during its migration may be responsible (4).
In the Abu Dhabi Emirate, the only United Arab Emirate where breeding pairs of sooty falcon are found, the situation is critical (9) (13). A survey conducted by the EAD in 2007 indicated that the sooty falcon has disappeared from many of its former breeding sites, and that currently only six breeding pairs are known to remain. The decline has been attributed to increased disturbance from urban development and the continuous presence of humans, especially during the nesting season (9).
In 2008, a joint initiative by the governments of the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom led to the signing of the “African-Eurasian Memorandum of Understanding on Birds of Prey”. This agreement will initiate the provision of concerted conservation measures for over 70 species of migratory birds of prey (14). Having proved instrumental in forming the agreement, the EAD is now devoting significant efforts towards conserving Abu Dhabi’s imperilled sooty falcon population (13). Current plans are to track the migrations of more sooty falcons in the 2009 breeding season and to possibly collaborate with researchers in Oman to initiate a comprehensive migration study (9).
Along with the studies of migration, there is also an urgent need to expand the formal protection of the sooty falcon’s breeding sites throughout its range, reducing, wherever possible, human disturbance and development. In addition, further research into the reasons for this species’ global decline must be conducted, especially in its wintering grounds, so that targeted conservation plans can be developed to prevent this extraordinary bird of prey from disappearing forever (13).
To find out more about Abu Dhabi’s conservation work with the sooty falcon, as well as other threatened species visit:
- The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi:
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- Flight-feathers: the large feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- Temperate: referring to the geographical region that lies between the polar and tropical regions, characterised by a moderate climate with distinct seasons.
IUCN Red List (November, 2011)