Kestrelling has become a popular activity among birders, simply because kestrels and falcons are such intriguing little raptors. There are five kestrel species in South Africa, but the long-distance travellers among them are quite awe-inspiring. Lesser kestrels, Amur falcons and red-footed falcons travel thousands of kilometres to summer in South Africa.

Did you know?

Kestrels and falcons are closely related, but falcons are a little larger and typically have little ‘moustachial’ markings.

Among birders and more ordinary persons, there is an eccentric little tribe that is crazy about kestrels. They don’t go birding, they go ‘kestreling’.

If you’re not already a ‘kestreller’ (also often spelled 'kestreler'), you might wonder what the fascination is. Kestrels are not spectacular raptors in the class of eagles or hawks. They’re not nearly as charismatic as bearded vultures. They don’t even possess the haughty mien of goshawks or buzzards.

But once you start learning about kestrels, you will be drawn in. They are part of the genus Falco and are small, neat raptors, some no bigger than pigeons. Some are solitary. Others, like the lesser kestrels, spend the days mostly hunting alone but assemble in their thousands at night to roost in tall trees.

You can see five species of kestrels in South Africa: the rock kestrel, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, Dickinson’s kestrel and grey kestrel. But kestrellers also focus on Amur falcons and red-footed falcons, which are genetically very similar to kestrels.

These particular falcons, along with the lesser kestrels, migrate to South Africa every year. They fly thousands of kilometres to spend the summers here (November to March) during the Eurasian winters.

One of the major kestrelling activities is to count these migrating raptors. A date is usually set in the last week of January to do so, and the information flowing in from amateur kestrellers is critical. The best way to do this is to head to the roost long before dawn and count them as they burst out of the trees in their hundreds at first light.

Kestrellers also observe whether they arrive or depart from South Africa earlier or later, which in turn provides information on possible effects from climate change.

The migrating kestrels and little falcons don’t breed in South Africa. Some kestrellers prefer to focus on breeding residents, like rock kestrels (which are near endemic) and greater kestrels. Kestrels can also be observed hawking for insects and perching on fences and telephone wires.

Perhaps the most uplifting kestrelling times are at dusk, when lesser kestrels and Amur falcons soar and glide in drifting clouds above and around their roosting trees. They look so exultant and free.

You can choose to join a group of kestrellers and be sociable, or you can go and hunt for sightings on your own.

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