The North Ronaldsay Lesser Kestrel, September 2011

Mark Warren

We’d had a reasonable start to the autumn and a handful of decent rarities, the highlight of which probably being a Fea’s Petrel on 1st September. As I set out up the west side on 20th September with a strong south-westerly wind blowing, I wasn’t particularly optimistic; but easterlies over the previous few days had produced the second island record of Tawny Pipit, an Ortolan and a reasonable fall of common passerines. After a fairly uneventful walk north up the rocky shore (the hoped for Buff-breasted Sandpiper wasn’t on Tor Ness) I’d had a text from Richard Else saying he’d found our third Citrine Wagtail of the year in the north of the Island and a Red-backed Shrike had been found by a visiting tour group. Slightly encouraged, I began to head back south through the fields and crofts and was surprised, given the strength of the wind, to see a handful of common warblers.

I was at Veracott when I picked up a small falcon flying low and straight towards me - on raising my bins I was amazed to see a male kestrel with a ridiculously bright, pastel-blue head. It flew straight at me and on looking for a black ‘moustache’ I couldn’t see one, although I couldn’t be 100% sure it wasn’t there. Its upperparts also seemed quite a bright orangey-brown colour, seemed lacking in black marks and contrasted greatly with the head and tail. As it flew over me I got a look at the underwings and they were pearly white with just a few black spots on them. Could this be a Lesser Kestrel? It was a crazy thought, but it was the maddest looking Kestrel I’d ever seen (even on a brief flyby view). I sent Paul Brown and RJE texts asking them to “keep an eye out for a MALE Kestrel...” – I didn’t even have to use the words Lesser Kestrel; they knew what I was going for – and I started running down the road after it.

After a couple of unproductive glimpses near the airfield I found the bird perched on a wall near Holland House and got a brief scope view before it continued south. At this point I should have done better but, having a memory like a sieve, I couldn’t remember the exact features to look for. It was back-on, but it appeared to show a slight dark moustache, which I knew was wrong for a Lesser Kestrel. It had moulted adult type blue-grey central tail feathers (which extended beyond the rest of the tail), with the outer tail feathers being paler grey with dark sub-terminal bars. It had barred immature greater coverts and I believed the mantle was plain orange-brown and unmarked. I also noted a bright orange-yellow cere and a distinct whitish check spot. It flew off down the road and yet again, I found myself running after it. I could see PAB, and the bird duly flew past him at reasonably close range. He too was struck by its head colour, but like me thought he could see a dark moustache. But, importantly, he had seen it catch an insect and eat it on the wing!

The alarm bells were ringing at deafening volume. After a few chores at the observatory and a read of the literature (I’d managed to age the bird as a second calendar year, but hadn’t identified it!) we all headed back out to try and relocate it. Thankfully it wasn’t long before I re-found it over Nouster bay and after a few minutes it drifted closer and hovered directly above me. Its breast was PINK with just a few small black spots framing a white throat, and I was pretty sure it didn’t have a dark moustache after all! I rang the others in a bit of a panic as it flew towards the Observatory telling them I was pretty sure it was one, but I couldn’t definitively prove it yet.

It did a couple of flybys either into the sun or distant and was briefly lost, but in general the views over the next hour or so were frustrating and inconclusive. Its size wasn’t much different from a Common Kestrel and its flight action offered few clues in the strong wind. This was such a massively rare bird and we were struggling to make certain of the features and at times doubting them at all.

By 6pm we’d almost given up, resigned to the fact that it was just going to be an ‘odd Kestrel’, when I saw it land on the SIDE wall of the Kirbest barn, clinging to it like a roosting swift for a few seconds before disappearing around the corner! Don’t ask me where, but somewhere I’d read this was something Lesser Kestrels did – and I’d certainly never seen a Common Kestrel do it. I approached the buildings and stumbled upon the bird perched on a derelict barn just 50 yards away - this was the moment I’d been wanting for the last six hours. Surprisingly calmly I set up my scope and saw something I will never forget - it had WHITE CLAWS! It also had a bright chestnut and completely unmarked mantle and no moustache mark, just a pale whitish cheek spot-which was what had caused the illusion of one. The doubt was gone; I’d nailed it - it was a Lesser Kestrel! I could now see the outermost couple of median coverts were moulted adult type blue-grey feathers. I (somewhat hysterically) rang PAB, RJE and Pete Donnelly who soon joined me, each in turn astonished when they clapped eyes on this stunning little falcon. The visiting tour group arrived a short time later and they too were treated to cracking views. It flew off a couple of times, but returned to the same site and was obviously keen to roost there. Photographs were taken and we all returned to the Observatory with big grins.

The bird, and it’s amazing pale claws, were ‘toasted’ long into the night, but with sore heads it was re-found early the next morning around Holland House where it lingered until last seen at about 3pm. It was twitched by just two Orkney birders on its second day and was seen by less than 20 birders in total. It was the highlight of a real purple patch for the Island with a Pallid Harrier, 2 Buff-bellied Pipits, Short-toed Lark, American Golden Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper all found over the next few days. For me it was the undoubted highlight of the autumn. A stunning bird!

The bird, and it’s amazing pale claws, were ‘toasted’ long into the night, but with sore heads it was re-found early the next morning around Holland House where it lingered until last seen at about 3pm. It was twitched by just two Orkney birders on its second day and was seen by less than 20 birders in total. It was the highlight of a real purple patch for the Island with a Pallid Harrier, 2 Buff-bellied Pipits, Short-toed Lark, American Golden Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper all found over the next few days. For me it was the undoubted highlight of the autumn. A stunning bird!