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Bat Falcon, Trinidad

July 15, 2012

By Rafael A. Gálvez

June 10, 2012. Asa Wright Nature Center and Lodge, Northern Range, Trinidad.

Falco rufigularis: A small and intrepid Neotropical falcon that takes most of its prey on the wing. Though it does consume bats, these typically compose no more than 15% of its diet. It hunts primarily hummingbirds, tanagers and swifts by agile aerial pursuits, though insects such as dragonflies and lepidopterans are also taken in substantial quantities. Rodents and other ground dwellers are taken on occasion. It is the falcon with the highest rate of reversed sexual dimorphism, with females up to 30% larger than males.

A Bat Falcon perched on a snag overlooking the Asa Wright estate house, and most members of my Caligo Ventures group had already seen it from the spectacular veranda by the time I got there that morning.

It was a raining and mist could be seen over the Arima Valley below, climbing the forested slopes of the surrounding mountains. The wet falcon kept mostly in a tucked posture, perched above eye level and facing down the slope.

The colors of some birds appear saturated when wet and their feathers become stringy, hugging the body and giving it an unusual contour. This morning, the sky washed with a thick atmosphere that flattened distances, and the falcon appeared dark and silhouetted.

I must confess that Bat Falcon was high up on my Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) wish list, and I was thrilled to see this bird regardless of lighting conditions. The proximity lent by my trusty scope – Leica Televid series – fixed this.

I decided to truncate breakfast and stayed with the bird some 40 minutes. We were soon to depart on a full day’s journey, and as we learned the hard way, the tour bus waited for no one. I managed to do a couple of watercolor sketches and several quick pencil and ink renderings. All the renderings in this post were done based on field observations of this bird from the Asa Wright veranda.

My first impression was that of a small bull-headed falcon in the vein of a stocky Eurasian Hobby. Superficially, the combination of a heavily patterned breast against rufous thighs and vent add to this. And the aerobatics of the Bat Falcon have a similar reputation as the hobbies, in terms of speed and agility. However, authorities consider the species a closer relative of the Aplomado Falcon, and particularly of the Orange-breasted Falcon, with which they share general similarities in appearance, vocalization and behavior.

As I quickly sketched, I noticed that this bird had brownish primary feathers, indicating a certain amount of wear, and a warmer cast to the greater coverts compared to the bluer upper parts. In the case of most North American falcons, wing molt begins once the birds are nesting. Females tend to molt primaries while incubating and males when nestlings are being reared. I also noticed the tail feathers in a bit of disarray and falling short of the folded wing tips. Most male Bat Falcons have wing tips shorter or equal to tail length while the wing tips of females may surpass tail length. However, rain causes feathers to appear out of the ordinary, and I might have been interpreting this bird more than is prudent.

Rain seemed to be slowing by the time I left this Bat Falcon. Now its appearance was changing; its feathers fluffed and its posture enlivened as it commenced preening.

Sketching in the field

I use a telescope and binoculars for most of my field sketches and paintings. During this trip I carried an assortment of paper, none larger than 14” x 10”, and a couple of small sketchbooks. Because of the wet conditions throughout the trip, particularly in Trinidad’s Northern Range, the paper was always moist or wet, especially after hikes in the rain.

  • Top image: This was a composite rendered over a watercolor gesture done on site. Pencil and color details were added later that day and the following morning, using sketches from other renderings as reference.
  • Middle image: Most of the watercolor was done on site. Details were added later.
  • Bottom image: Pencil and ink rendering done on site. Watercolor added that night.

To find out more about trips to Trinidad & Tobago contact Caligo Ventures.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2012 4:30 am

    Rafael, you never told us (or me) that you were an artist at Curry Hammock in 2011. These are excellent.

  2. July 16, 2012 1:58 pm

    I remember that Bat Falcon well, Rafael, and enjoy your renderings as much as the bird in life. Incredible work!

    • July 16, 2012 8:26 pm

      Mike, I remember hearing you and the others point out a Black-tailed Tityra while I got started with the Bat Falcon. I ultimately missed out on the Tityra for the entire trip. It was a bit of a bummer, but I couldn’t let go of the falcon. It can be disconcerting to paint and bird at the same time. I guess photography can also be like that?

  3. July 16, 2012 2:17 pm

    Awesome stuff Rafael!!! I’m no expert but from the pairs I’ve observed, I’d bet this was a female based on your incredible depictions. In comparison, they seem to show heavier rufous at the lower breast (as in your drawings/sketches/paintings) and be a little less neatly marked than the males in my limited experience (maybe 5 pair).

    • July 16, 2012 10:49 pm

      That’s a nice tip Jeff. I probably put too much weight on the wing vs. tail length issue, when I was in no position to judge that considering my perspective. I’m not sure how reliable that is, but it’s all I could think of in terms of sexing it – short of actually having another bird for comparison. Now that I’d like to see, a male and a female Bat Falcon perched side by side! Thanks.

  4. August 12, 2013 10:07 am

    Great stuff Rafael! I am a photographer and never in a million years would have thought that these great sketches were done on site. I totally understand what you said about the tityra – sometimes you’re so engrossed in working a subject that you miss something else. I actually had a pair of bat falcons nesting close to where I live, I loved seeing them hunt at the twilight hours – once I actually saw one offering the other a meal.

    • August 12, 2013 12:23 pm

      Thank you for the comments Faraaz. I don’t want to make the process of sketching birds in the field sound easier than what it is – a challenge. I’ve been at it for quite some time, and still don’t often get the results I wish for. The process can be tedious and long, if one is hoping for any kind of accuracy – with many false starts and often long nights trying to wrap up bits started or nearly finished throughout the day. The focus – for me – often has me missing other species; unlike birding, when one can switch subject matter quickly. I was fortunate to have this Bat Falcon perched from a convenient location, and was stationed at Asa Wright, which allowed for relative comfort in developing the sketches. Thanks!

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