Our little spitfire...

Last updated 12:33 13/08/2012

We love our falcons in New Zealand, and I'm not just talking about the cars...

While all sorts of land-speed records were challenged, broken and contested last week during the Olympics, the human speeds simply pale in comparison to one of our endangered birds of prey.

The native falcon or karearea is the cheetah of the New Zealand bird fauna, reaching speeds of up to 200kmh - only a bit slower than the world's fastest, the peregrine falcon, which can reach upwards of 240kmh (making it the Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom!).

There are three variants of falcons: the small, dark bush falcons of the North Island, and in southwestern habitats as far down as Greymouth; the paler eastern falcons found in large areas of the South Island, especially east of the Southern Alps; and the southern falcons found in Fiordland, Stewart Island and, yes, even the Auckland Islands.

Falcon image (Craig McKenzie)

New Zealand falcon/Karearea (Picture: Craig McKenzie)

Karearea are simply amazing little hunters. The girl falcons are bigger than the boy falcons and can catch and eat different prey as a result (a female falcon has no hassles with a rabbit). Regardless of their size disparity, all falcons can take down animals larger than themselves. Falcons have been quite adaptable, and can exist in all kinds of habitats including pine forests. Sadly there are only a few thousand left. Where they suffer is where there are predators (because they are ground nesters), and sadly where there are people - who don't perhaps understand how lucky we are to have this amazing aerial predator in New Zealand - and who intentionally harm them (often by shooting).

However, there are some pretty amazing people in New Zealand who have dedicated their lives to protecting our birds of prey, educating the public about how special they are and rehabilitating injured birds. Hats off to the team at Wingspan, who turn 20 this year! This incredible endeavour has been a labour of love for Noel Hyde and Debbie Stewart and the team, and I have to say for anyone visiting Rotorua, a trip to Wingspan to watch the falcons fly is not to be missed. Happy Birthday guys!  If you want to know more about falcons, falconry and how they rehabilitate these amazing birds, I'll leave it to Noel and Debbie to explain it...

So, have you heard the distinctive "kek-kek-kek!" of a karearea? Whereabouts? Anyone else been to Wingspan?

22 comments
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Tim   #1   12:47 pm Aug 13 2012

I'm no bird watcher by I've seen falcons on numerous occasions, mostly in the southern alps. Even saw one take out a grey heron once. There are some living in Belmont regional park and they land in the pines behind our house and often fly over with small birds in their talons. I've also seen them perched in gardens down Dowse Drive (Maungaraki) and over on Somes Isl as well as chasing red billed gulls in the harbour. They have a distinctive wing beat and are easy to spot once you know what you're looking for

Mason   #2   01:13 pm Aug 13 2012

I agree that falcons are great birds

H   #3   01:37 pm Aug 13 2012

Real neat birds. They seem to have no fear, they are easy to get close to. I have to question the estimated numbers though, surely there are more than a couple of thousand. I grew up in the Hutt and regularly saw them. I have since moved to Gisborne and there are plenty up here too. Like the article said they also do well in pine forests, they like nesting in logging slash which is ideal habitat for them.

A R   #4   01:45 pm Aug 13 2012

Earlier this year we rejoiced to see a karearea eating a city pigeon near our place (close to Zealandia). They are awesome birds. Let's vote it 2012 Bird of the Year in Forest & Bird's poll! You can vote from next month :)

GT   #5   01:51 pm Aug 13 2012

We live on the eastern side of lower hutt and had a little native falcon take a liking to our two fantail doves. Over two consecutive weekends we got to see some amazing aerial displays, as the Falcon was out turned by the doves, and harrased by the local Tui's, all just over the house. Unfortunately the doves lost out. No ill feelings towards the Falcon.

Christian   #6   01:58 pm Aug 13 2012

It is fitting the Ford Falcon is named after such an amazing bird.

Peter C   #7   02:15 pm Aug 13 2012

Christian #6. They are both endangered species but I'll wager the feathered variety will outlive it's metallic counterpart.

AJ   #8   02:27 pm Aug 13 2012

Lots of them out here in Porirua, especially over the northern suburbs like down the back of Whitby. Always see them gliding overhead whenever im out there

Joe   #9   02:35 pm Aug 13 2012

I wonder if those reporting wide spread sighting of the falcon are confusing them with the far more numerous Harrier Hawke. It would be difficult to tell them apart from a distance.

Richmond   #10   05:40 pm Aug 13 2012

Karearea are not always ground nesters, as the article says. Of the 4 nests I've watched over, out here in the Eastbourne area, 2 were high in trees and 2 were on the ground. Since nesting preference is thought to be inherited (you make a nest like the one you were raised in), one would think ground nesters would have been selected against, but this seems not to be the case. Tim is right about the distinctive fast wingbeats; most often a gliding raptor will be a Harrier, though in strong winds Karearea will perform spectacular soaring aerobatics, especially in courting times. The characteristic loud call is often what first catches the attention, and is often used when attacking, be it people, Harriers, Gulls or other intruders. Total numbers are a subject of some controversy; I'm inclined to believe they may be less rare than the 4000 pairs often cited.


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