Once a sub-species of the red-footed falcon but now upgraded to its own distinct species, the Amur falcon has gained much respect and recognition due to its impressive migration behaviour. Every year, large flocks of these small raptors prove their resilience by making a daring voyage from East Asia to southern Africa and back, an estimated distance of 23,000 km.
The breeding grounds for the Amur falcon stretches from northern Mongolia, Eastern China and Russia regions of Transbaikalia and Amurland to parts of North Korea. In early autumn, the birds migrate from these areas to southern Africa. They first leave for northeast India and Bangladesh. These stops act as their staging ground for the longest over-water migration of any raptor: a journey of more than 4000 km. In the staging area, they accumulate in the thousands for feeding and resting. The over-water journey is what is of particular interest to avid birders and conservationists. They fly non-stop for several days and nights traversing the Arabian Sea as well as the Indian Ocean and arriving in East Africa around late autumn. While they are typically seen alone, sometimes, other falcons can be see mixed in their flocks.
How are such small birds able to make this extraordinary journey? The Amur falcon is specially adapted to the strong monsoon winds. They are thought to climb to an altitude of more than 1000m to take advantage of these winds which are particularly strong at that height. The migration over the ocean coincides with that of dragonflies which becomes the Amur falcon’s in-flight food. The rains in Africa disturbs swarms of insects like ants, termites, locusts and beetles which become ample feed for the falcon on arrival to the South African mainland in November to December. The return leg which begins in early May takes them a different route that is more northward. It is speculated that they cross the Arabian Peninsula into Afghanistan and on-wards back home to East Asia. Vagrants have been seen as far as Sweden and the United Kingdom.
This long migration route has made the Amur falcon susceptible to hunting and illegal trapping. Land reclamation and habitat loss are also a threat to this migration. For instance, in Nagaland region of India, up to 140,000 Amur falcons were trapped in 2012 alone. However, thanks to sustained governmental and non-governmental conservation efforts that include a ban on trapping, continued public education and patrols, no falcons were trapped in 2013. With such measures in place, these determined birds will continue to undertake their remarkable fete the way nature intended;uninterrupted and in large numbers.