Article written by Antonio Iannibelli and translated by Marco Albertini
The lesser kestrel (“falco naumanni”) is a bird of prey belonging to the group of falcons which has been very closed to men for a long time.
If you have the chance to travel through south Italy in the area between Puglia and Basilicata well know for its stones and rocky churches, among tuff quarries and wide plateaux, you might spot some strange swifts up in the sky.
There are motionless outlines of several birds of prey among thousands of electricity pylons and kilometres of overhead cables.
While you are driving along all those half-empty roads, you can be easily surprised by the large amount of birds living in this territory.
It’s seems like you are travelling through a drab landscape, especially in August.
In this period in fact there is no green on the ground because of the drought and there are just one or two figures to be seen walking across the fields, among old empty manor farms and magnificent holiday farms, between many deep gullies and secular olive groves.
Hither and thither there are fire and smoke.
Here it’s easy to see the silhouette of the lesser kestrel.
It flies in the face of the wind, light as a feather, then it comes to rest, leaves again and flies about above the land, as if it is playing with flames.
I follow its spectacular flight with binoculars; unlucky grasshoppers are eaten in an unusual and peculiar manner.
The prey is caught with the claws and devoured with the beak with legs stretched and head bounded and then the quarry is carefully eaten up in flight; stodgy parts and pieces of straw are discharged in the air and they slowly land on the ground.
I noticed many times how the lesser kestrel capitalizes on farmer’s habits.
In midsummer the soil is prepared for sowing and farmers burn the brushwood before ploughing; that is an ancient method, which means that the straw of the corn just reaped is arranged in many long, parallel heaps and it is slowly burnt; so grasshoppers have no time to escape from the flames and they are stuck between the fire lines.
Kestrels are well-aware of this natural trap and they take advantage of it to have an appetizing feed-up.
These birds’ nosedives are sometimes proceeded by grasshoppers’ leaps right into the fire while they are trying to escape from the predators-so out of the frying pan into the fire!
I have no proof but it seems this bird of prey appreciate mainly grilled grasshoppers.
I tried to count how many insects can be easily be caught in such circumstance-dozen and dozen in only an hour’s time.
Kestrels could hardly reach that number in a whole day without fire and flames, as a matter of fact grasshoppers camouflage themselves well in the fields and they minimize their movements just to avoid predators.
The lesser kestrel takes advantage of this chance: where there is smoke there is fire and where there is fire there is food galore, so that dozens of birds head straight toward the fields with no competition-there will be food for everyone.
I learnt from them so when I want to take some good photos I have to do nothing but point at the smoke columns and acrid smell of fire.
Other birds avail themselves of the opportunity as well; they hunt big prey which ramble in the countryside frightened by flames.
So you can easily observe the flight of the common buzzard “Buteo Buteo”, the black kite “Milvus Migrans”, the red kite “Milvus Milvus”, the honey buzzard “Pernis Apivorus”; waiting on electricity cables there are the lesser grey shrike “Lanius Minor”, the European roller “Coracias Garrulus”, the European bee-eater “Merops Apiaster” and so on.
There are obviously the cunning carrion crows and even some foxes.
Therefore this old tradition of burning stubbles creates an amazing attraction for predators and nature photographers like us too.
I can’t tell if this is a real advantage for farmers but I do know for sure the lesser kestrel really takes advantage of it; in fact it gains strength and power before setting off on the long journey to Africa, after the weariness of reproduction.
Besides this peculiar habit I have to point out that these tiny predators are very closed to men; the majority of falcons living in this territory in fact build their nests in old centres of many small towns and mainly in Matera centre.
If you have the chance to visit this town of stones and rocky churches, I suggest you don’t let this opportunity slip away: peer into the deep gully in the twilight so that you can admire the beauty of nature and landscape and observe the birds of prey leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening.
There are hundreds of specimens going hunting in the fields nearby all day long; at dusk they come back to spend the night on roofs and city trees, where they can get a safe shelter.
If you want to take nice shoots of the falcons you need a telephoto lens (500 mm) and a normal lens (28-70 mm) for landscape and I also suggest a macro lens for close-ups (100 mm or 200 mm) and good binoculars.
It could be a great chance to uncover one of the most enchanting landscapes of our beautiful country.
You can spend a whole week just relaxing even in midsummer in the ancient town of Matera which lies between the deep gully of Laterza , the Murgia Park and the San Giuliano Oasis.