The search for the Grey Falcon

I had the opportunity to spend a few days up the Birdsville Track recently, and immediately thought about spending some time trying to find the Grey Falcon – arguably Australia’s rarest raptor.

It’s a bird I find particularly interesting however, its also one which has eluded me on many occasions, and I knew the chances of finding it would be slim at best. Nonetheless, it’s always exciting spending time in the desert country, and I enthusiastically prepared for the trip.

We would spend four or five days on this trip, which meant we wouldn’t have much time. However, I knew of a few locations where the birds had been seen in the past, and decided to revisit these areas. Without this knowledge, I wouldn’t even bother trying to find these birds as they are SO RARE.

The Australian desert region is a huge area – larger than all of Europe, so we certainly didn’t embark on this trip with any great expectations. Anyway, a few days away from work was long overdue.

The area we were visiting had experienced good rains recently, which had its good and bad points. The good side being the huge numbers of budgies we saw. The down side to this is that the budgies were everywhere – which meant more hunting locations for the Grey Falcons to choose from. This was not going to be easy!

For the first couple of days, we searched various creek beds where we managed to get a mental picture of the budgie numbers and their preferred feeding spots. What really surprised me was the large number of budgies we were seeing in the opening gibber plains. The budgies were everywhere, advertising their presence with their familiar chirp chirp. Eventually, we did settle on a dry creek bed alongside the gibber plains. This spot certainly had plenty of birdlife and also provided some elevation for us to “film down” on the budgies.

It was the start of winter and the morning temperatures were around 5 degrees centigrade however, by mid morning, we enjoying sitting in the mid teens – very comfortable filming conditions.

On the first day, with the exception of a Black Breasted Buzzard flying overhead, absolutely nothing happened. We just sat there for hours swatting flies and wondering if we had missed something. Why would there be so many Budgies, Cockatiels, and other birds, with no raptors?

Filming wildlife is wonderful when things are happening, but not so good when they are not. This is something I am well aware of however, after making such a huge effort on this trip, I had hoped something of interest might take place. My morale was getting low.

The next day we decided to go back to the same spot, still convinced the budgies were our best bet. We set up nice and early in the morning with renewed enthusiasm. This soon waned as the morning progressed in the same vane as the day before. Having said that, I should say I did get the chance to film a couple of feral dogs, which did break the routine for a short while.

On this morning, the budgies were in even greater numbers and constantly advertised their presence with their “chirp chirp” call. We thought something had to happen – AND IT DID!

The birds feeding happily on the ground suddenly took to the air and felt clearly threatened by something. I flicked the switch on the camera and scanned the horizon and also high in the sky. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I say what was clearly a Grey Falcon.

With adrenalin pumping, I finally managed to capture some surprising good flight footage as the bird soared around the area where the budgies were feeding only a few seconds ago. Perhaps it was looking for a single bird to target? Who knows, but it didn’t seem that interested, and flew further down the creek bed.

I couldn’t believe I actually filmed a Grey Falcon. What an amazing experience!

That night, we spoke with some locals who suggested we film at a local water hole in the middle of the gibber plain. This sounded promising as we knew the budgies would have much less cover than they did on the creek beds.

I started thinking of capturing a scene with the Grey Falcon hunting the budgies, and how exciting this would be.

When we got to the waterhole, there were many birds coming and going and I recall thinking how wary these birds were – only spending a second or two drinking. It wasn’t long before we witnessed the reason for this, when a Grey Falcon appeared high in the sky!

It took longer than I had hoped to locate the bird in the camera viewfinder, but eventually I hit the record button and tried my best to keep up with the falcon, as it stooped on a single budgie, which was now well into the open gibber plain. I found it quite difficult to remain calm as I fumbled with the camera focus button.

The initial attack was unsuccessful and we lost the bird in the bright sunshine for a few seconds thereafter. It then reappeared in the distance and I could make out a budgie in its talons. I was a bit disappointed to have missed the final part of the hunting scene, but I didn’t have time to dwell on this, as I put the camera in the ute and headed off towards the last spot where we saw the Grey.

Luckily, we found it quite easily, as it fed on the budgie in the beautiful light of the afternoon sun. I filmed it from a distance and after capturing some footage, would sneak another 10 meters closer. In the end, I was filming the bird happily feeding only 30 metres from me.

It fed for around 5 minutes and I hoped it would give me a last chance to capture it in flight. It didn’t let me down, almost flying towards me, as it disappeared behind me into the distance. That was our last sighting of the Grey Falcon on this trip – and what a trip it was!

I prepared for this trip thinking how nice it would be to capture the Grey Falcon in flight – probably some distant shot at best. I never imagined I would film it hunting budgies at a waterhole in the vast open gibber plains. What an amazing experience!

You can view a short video which captures some of the highlights of this trip within the Video Footage page. You can access this page by clicking the “Video Footage” link at the top right hand side of this page.


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