The Pannonian biogeographical region is one of nine regions of Europe included in the EU Habitats Directive. It stretches from south of Timisoara along the Romanian West Plain to the Hungarian.Ukranian border in the east across Hungary to the border with Austria in the west including the southern edge of the Slovak Republic and the south-east corner of the Czech Republic to the north. The full Pannonian Basin stretches into northern Serbia and Croatia and was once a huge sea reaching its maximum extent 126.96.36.199 million years ago. It is a now a major agricultural area due to the rich loamy loess soil and favourable rainfall patterns.
It's early September and we are driving south from the Romanian city of Timiºoara to try to catch a glimpse of the red-footed falcon (Falco verpertinus). If we are lucky, we hope to see one or two before night-fall.
Red-footed falcons are medium-sized birds of prey about 30 cm in length, with a wing-span of around 70 cm. The male is mainly slate-blue in colour, but its pinkish-red lower belly and legs give the species its name. The female is larger and mostly orange in colour, with a blue-grey back. Red-footed falcons do not build their own nests, but take over the nests of rooks (Corvus frugilegus), most of which vacate their nests in March to migrate to the open fields of the Ukraine and Russia for the summer. The falcons usually have a clutch of four eggs each year that hatch in mid-May to June. They are classified as 'near threatened' in the IUCN Red List classification.
Up until the early 1990s, there were thousands of nesting pairs of this falcon in the Pannonian region of eastern Hungary and Western Romania during the summer months.
However, after these countries became market economies in the 1990s, falcon numbers began to decline, largely due to a series of changes that affected rooks and rook nests. These changes included the intensification of agriculture and heavy use of pesticides in some areas, reductions in the numbers of grazing animals, extensive removal of trees to widen roads, and campaigns to eradicate the rooks through poisoning by farmers angry at the loss of their crops. As a result, rook populations dropped by 90 % in the 1990s. The absence of rook nests affected falcons, and less than 1 000 falcon pairs remained in Hungary and Romania by the early 2000s. However, increased recognition of the importance of rooks has led to conservation measures. Rooks are now strictly protected in Hungary, and in Romania, they are protected from hunting during the nesting season from 15 August to 15 March.