Sooty Falcon Survey

Sooty Falcon

The Sooty Falcon is a small predatory bird from the falconidae family that is grayish blue in color.  Its body length is 12- 15 inches (32-37cm) long and the wingspan is 30-36 inches (78-90cm) long.  The female is slightly larger than the male.  This elegant falcon has especially narrow wings making them agile in flight so they can hunt migratory birds as well as bats and insects.  Sooty falcons are different than most birds of prey in that their eggs hatch during migration season allowing the newly hatched falcons to use migrating birds for food.  

Sooty falcons can be found throughout countries in North Africa and the Middle East.  They are located in Libya, east through Egypt, on the islands off the coast of Sudan, in Djibouti and Ethiopia, along the Western coast of Saudi Arabia (where the largest population is located), northwest Yemen, southern Israel and Jordan, the islands in the Persian Gulf and Oman, Qatar and southwest Pakistan.  Sooty falcons can also be found migrating from Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa.

The falcons arrive in Israel between April and June, and return to relatively fixed locations. They make their nests in the deserts of Eilat in the south, throughout the eastern Negev Highlands and into the Judean Desert. They build their nest in crevices in cliffs, rock terraces and appropriate abandoned nests of other birds. Three weeks after the chicks hatch, in October, the falcons migrate to their winter habitats in Africa.

Sooty falcons are considered an endangered species.  According to new data, the number of Sooty falcons has been decreasing over the past two decades. Israel's deserts are home to about 10% of the population worldwide. A 1980-1984 survey indicated that there are around 100 pairs of Sooty falcons in Israel's deserts.  Because it had been more than 25 years since the last survey and the falcon's population appeared to be decreasing, a new academic survey was initiated.  The purpose of the new survey is to obtain precise information about the population size and trends within the population over the past 30 years.  

The survey has been jointly conducted, under the "Spreading Wings" project, by the Nature and Parks Authority together with SPNI and the Israel Electric Corporation since Autumn of 2011.  This survey is the world's only inland survey on the Sooty Falcon population.  Beginning in August 2011, the first part of the survey was conducted studying the nesting and population distribution of Sooty falcons in Israel. The survey was run by SPNI's Ornithological Center in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority. Data from the past (including interesting observations from the 18th century) were collected and analyzed. Veteran travel guides, birders and desert residents were interviewed in order to receive current information, forming the structure for the survey. Most of the survey was conducted in remote desert areas, including small, three day expeditions to sites that had not previously been surveyed for Sooty Falcon populations.

There were 46 pairs of Sooty Falcons observed according to the data from 2011 and 2012.  Using this data the population can be estimated to be about 100 pairs of falcons.  However the data is incomplete because there is still another nesting season to be included in the survey.    

Interim results show that Israel's population of falcons is strong and important because unlike the global population it is not declining. This data is very encouraging and suggests the importance of preserving the habitat of the Sooty falcons.

Although most land that Sooty falcons use for nesting is on nature reserves or in remote areas, there are still some risk factors that threaten this beautiful species:

1. Sooty falcons feed almost exclusively on migratory birds. Changes in the population of these migratory birds or to their traditional migration patterns can affect the nesting success of Sooty falcons.

2. Sight-seers can disturb nesting sites (often without their knowledge).

3. Injury from farmers protecting agricultural areas.

4. Hunting (in the world).

5. Damage to the sites in Africa and nesting areas in North Africa Middle East.

Nature preservation organizations plan to initiate a program to maintain the Sooty Falcon and SPNI hopes that the survey data will help the effort to maintain this rare and beautiful bird.