New Zealand falcons breeding in Cambridge

Male New Zealand falcon
I discovered this rare New Zealand falcon and his mate breeding on the edge of Cambridge, the first known nesting of this species in such an environment. Taken with a Canon 1D Mark IV, EF600mm f/4L IS USM + 1.4xTC, 1/125 s at f7.1, ISO 1600.

I remember November 14 well. It was the day of the solar eclipse, and after I managed to get a few photos of it through passing clouds I headed off for the afternoon. Driving through Cambridge I spotted a New Zealand falcon (karearea) flying over the road, carrying prey. Normally this would be totally unexpected, but I had been told of a few recent sightings in the area. Still I didn’t have much hope of seeing it again as birds like that have an amazing ability to disappear into the trees. However, not only did I find my bird, but after some observation I discovered a nest, with two eggs already laid. A few seconds after this discovery I got a smack in the back of the head from the owner, which was probably fair punishment for my intrusion.

New Zealand falcon
A New Zealand falcon flying along the gully near its nest site in Cambridge. Taken with a Canon EF600mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x, 1/640 s at f8, ISO 800.

Over the next couple of days there was a flurry of discussion with colleagues at Landcare Research and staff at Waikato Regional and Waipa District Councils, the Department of Conservation, Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust, and a couple of dedicated local conservationists. This is an unusual nest location, with unique issues—NZ falcons usually breed in native forest or cut over pine plantations. The two main threats here were thought to be mammalian predators and people. NZ falcons might be aggressive predators at the top of the pre-human food chain, but like all our birds they evolved in the absence of mammalian predators to which they are surprisingly vulnerable. Video monitoring of other nests has shown cats devouring chicks at night while an adult falcon stands by helplessly blind in the dark. Being close to an urban area, the Cambridge falcon nest would also likely face disturbance by people, some ignorant of the harm caused by approaching too close, and perhaps some more sinister. An intensive pest trapping programme was quickly set up, but humans would be more difficult to manage. Part of my day job involves video surveillance of bird nests, so I installed a camera to watch the falcon nest around the clock. Hopefully this would at least reveal the cause if the nest did fail.

New Zealand falcon chick
One of the two NZ falcon chicks raised on the outskirts of Cambridge. This photo was taken when the chicks were about 28 days old, just after having metal leg bands fitted to identify them in the future. Taken with a Canon EF100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, 1/125 s at f4, ISO 800.
Fledgling New Zealand falcon
A fledgling New Zealand falcon (karearea) at about 38 days old. A few traces of down remain, and although only flying weakly at this stage, he is getting stronger by the day. Taken with a Canon EF600mm f/4L IS USM, 1/250 s at f5, ISO 640.

Apart from the unexplained disappearance of the adult male, things progressed well at the nest over the next month. Then school holidays started. By this stage the chicks were well grown and making themselves quite conspicuous. The video camera was soon destroyed, and footage from the recorder showed a lot of deliberate disturbance of the birds. The chicks had survived, but this was still a big disappointment after all the hard work put in by many people. Most of the youths using the area were also disappointed in the vandalism and they deserve some credit for helping protect the birds from further harm.

On Christmas day I got a great gift when I watched the chicks fly across the gully. They still face a lot of challenges—little is known about the survival rate of young NZ falcons—but to see them from eggs to fledging has been very special and rewarding. Hopefully this is the beginning of the return of karearea to urban and rural Waikato, and hopefully I can soon go and find my hat, last seen draped triumphantly over one of the adult falcon’s favourite perches.

You can see more NZ falcon photos in my web gallery, and there are more to come.