Birds of the Water Wood & Waste
IT is a relief to have done with the Harrier and to turn to his relative, the gallant little Falcon. Each season five or six pairs build on the run, mostly far back along the high ranges or on the fern-clad conglomerate country. The nests are miles apart, for the Falcon brooks no rival in his own domain, and will chase the Harrier out of his sky, hunt the shepherd's collies back to their master's heels, and attack even man himself.
The male—the smaller bird—is the more swift, the more fierce, the more silent, but not the more agitated or devoted, and I have known the hen stand by her eggs or little chicks, guarding them against an intruder only five yards distant—this, moreover, on a first interview.
When accustomed to myself and the camera, I have taken exposures without any kind of screen, and at a distance of about twenty feet. Even on his autumn and winter hunting grounds, and long after the time has gone for the defence of young or protection of nest, he will pass unconcernedly in strong, level flight but a few feet distant.
At all times his joy is to pursue and attack the Harrier, who, when pressed, turns over in the air, and, lying on his back, stretches up in defence his sharp and terrible talons.
One pair of Falcons—I suppose the same birds—used a cliff site for many successive seasons, but this return to an old site, or even its immediate vicinity, is, in my ex- page 124 perience, quite exceptional. The eggs are laid on the spot chosen: if at the base of a conglomerate cliff, then on the ferruginous pebbles, which, by the bye, they exactly match; if on a limestone ledge or platform, then among the trodden fern fronds and grasses, which make a softer layer for them: if on a wind blown pumice scoop on the ranges, then among the bare, dry, grey grit.
Quite other sites are, however, more rarely chosen, for one of the shepherds found a nest built by the birds themselves on a low gnarled tutu bush jutting out from a little cliff, or rather slip of papa rock.
It was an action of extraordinary neatness, and executed with acrobatic exactitude. After a short time, probably finding that he would not approach her, the hen flew off her nest and took it from him.
It is not to be thought, however, that a pale of desolation reigns round about the Falcon's nest.
From different coverts used by me on different nests could be heard the Warbler trilling, the Fantail creaking, and the calls of Thrush, Quail, Waxeye, Blackbird, Lark, Redpole and Chaffinch. All these species seem to dwell in the dangerous vicinity of the Falcon, as folk camp serenely on the slopes of a volcano slumbering, but which may at any moment break out afresh; or it may be that, like station collies who have taken to worrying, the Falcon prefers to do his killing far afield.
The eggs, two, or less frequently, three in number, are so thickly peppered and sprinkled with red as to quite obscure the ground colour. The young Falcon, when first hatched are covered with white down, as their age increases it changes to grey and is not altogether gone when flight is page 126 first attempted. Even when there are three eggs, my experience has been that they usually hatch out, but in that case out of the three nestlings one is distinctly smallest.
Often, however, there are but two chicks, one considerably the larger, and probably the female.
During the season of 1908–1909 I had a Falcon's nest under observation at the base of a conglomerate cliff on the pumiceous lands. Tall manuka poles supported against the pebbly wall made a capital lean-to, round them scrim was wrapped, and finally brushwood piled on top.
Thus, within two or three yards of the nest, the most intimate details of Falcon family life was open to me.
Always, however, after the parent bird's arrival there is a pause—grace before meat, as it were,—and this rule, the chicks however hungry never attempt to transgress. Besides manners, probably the weightier matters of the law are not neglected and justice administered impartially.
On one occasion I saw the male come in with food, which, after the usual pause for grace, was annexed by the larger chick, and after a few protests from the other, was devoured in a corner. It had been barely finished when the female Falcon swooped from the sky and lit on the edge with another dead bird, and this dead bird, I noticed, was purposely kept away from the chick just fed, and deliberately held out to, and given to, the other. After waiting, as Falcons do, with open mouth for a few moments, she turned and flew off. She was hardly out of sight when the well-fed and larger chick seized on the fresh prey too. page 128 But this time the little fellow was not going to lose his dinner, and a terrible squealing and tugging ensued, during which the little chap was dragged about like the weaker side in a tug-of-war.
Help was at hand, for almost at once the mother bird, probably not altogether unaccustomed to such bickerings, had returned. Taking the morsel from the offender, who at once gave way, she tore it up for the little fellow, feeding him from her bill till every morsel had been eaten.
The effect of a full meal on the youngsters is very curious, acting upon them as does a glass of champagne on a man, and causing the little creatures to strut up and down their platform, with bellies distended and the very air of the typical Irishman trailing his coat and spoiling for a fight.
As with the Kingfishers, supplies brought up, and, owing to fear of the screen, not at once given to the young, are either dropped or eaten by the purveyors themselves.
When advancing to shelter the nestlings, she “creeps,” or “glides,” or “pushes” page 130 on to them—each word would describe the curious action—and at any rate first covers them with her breast, not her wings.
The young spend a lot of their time snoozing; then there is the constant occupation of getting rid of the black blowflies who are so tickly, and will clamber about their fluff, and will not go away.
Then they play, too, venturing out from their ledge as toddling children do from an open door, pretending suddenly to be scared, and hopping back with great celerity. Great fits of yawning, too, or more probably some Falcon Sandow exercise, overcome them at times, and for a minute at a time they will stand gaping and swallowing till their jaws must ache.
Supplies were brought in quite irregularly, of course, but averaging, I daresay, about once in every ninety minutes. The youngsters in this nest, however, were three-quarters grown, and would require a proportionately good supply. As the nestlings develop they begin to wander, and long before fit for flight have ventured yards away from the original site, hopping and scrambling with great agility. For several weeks, and long after becoming fully fledged they are still tended, and probably partly fed by the old birds.
The young, when molested, throw themselves upon their backs and strike fiercely with their talons, uttering the while a yelling Mephistophelian laughter. The beak is not at first used in defence; it is page 132 still too soft, but the claws of a half-grown Falcon will start blood.
Probably not many Falcon's nests are taken; and probably, too, not many broods destroyed. The eyries are often inaccessible, and the parent birds too fierce and devoted to allow the approach of vermin.
Even to them, however, accidents do occur, and this season a brood under observation, when about half-grown, were destroyed. At first I believed it to have been the work of a neighbour's rabbiter, for in my diary I find the brief, vindictive note, “Add repeating rifle to photographic gear!” I was wrong, however, for later, when photographing Tuis in the same locality, we came across, on more than one occasion, evidently the same pair of Falcon. The three nestlings must have been destroyed during their parents' absence, and probably by some wandering wild cat. This pair did not attempt a second nest, and, I believe, under normal conditions, the Falcon breeds but once a year.page break page break