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.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Best time to visit
The summer months from November to March are best if you want to see the migrating kestrels. Rock kestrels breed between September and December.
Tours to do
Having your own vehicle is almost essential if you prefer the flexibility of heading off to do your own kestrelling.
What to pack
Essentials include binoculars and notebook. If you’re wanting to see lesser kestrels fly out of their roosts at first light, a flask of coffee would be a good idea, plus a camera. If you’re a really keen birder or kestreller, you’ll want a scope and tripod, and some waterproof clothing if you’re planning to spend some time watching a rock kestrel nest (weather can change swiftly in the Western Cape).
Where to stay
This depends on what kind of kestrel or falcon interests you. The eastern side of the country is generally the most productive. You’ll find Amur falcons concentrated in the grasslands in the eastern Free State, and western and northern KwaZulu-Natal, and the southern Mpumalanga area.
Lesser kestrels are easiest to see in eastern Karoo towns where they like to roost. These include Hanover, Springfontein, Victoria West, Loxton, De Aar, Philipstown, Britstown and Kimberley. They’ll spend the day perched along fences on the main and dirt roads in the vicinity.
Rock kestrels can be seen breeding in the mountainous areas not far from Cape Town between September and December.
There are a bewildering array of falcons, buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks in South Africa, to name only a few of the raptors. Also, kestrel females look quite different from the males. Get a good bird book to help you identify them.