Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Falcon Adds Drama to Shorebird Watching
September 23, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Birder’s have quipped that the peregrine falcon recovery program was too successful – that there are now too many! Far from the truth, but with populations up and peregrines nesting locally now, they do keep the shorebirds, and the birders, on their toes. As birders scan the feeding flocks of shorebirds to identify individuals or to count their numbers, invariably a peregrine will swoop down and scatter the flock.
More often unsuccessful, the falcon moves on and the flock settles down again. As birders resume their scans, the peregrine frequently returns to try again. Sometimes the raptor is successful by singling out a bird from the flock and using its speed and agility to catch its prey.
It reminds me of the amazing drama that played out on Plum Island years ago, as told by Paul Roberts of Medford:
“Birding Plum Island this morning, I was disappointed by the total absence of shorebirds at the Salt Pannes and Hellcat. … I proceeded to Stage Island, where I finally found: 100 Black Bellied Plovers, one Golden Plover, several unidentified Dowitchers, when suddenly the plover exploded into the air. Then the smaller peep, into two flocks, slicing tightly through the air, and then reversing direction. Obviously a raptor, but I couldn’t find it.
“Suddenly, I saw the black bullet pursuing a flock of small peep low across the near side of the pool. A Peregrine juvenile, very small and extremely dark. Almost certainly the one I had observed closely the week before. Suddenly, a small sandpiper and I were surely thinking the same thought. How in blazes did that hawk separate that small sandpiper from the flock, because instantaneously, he had singled out what was almost certainly a Semipalmated Sandpiper from the bottom of the flock and was pursuing one lonely exposed peep low across the water.
“The falcon was reeling in the shorebird with each passing nanosecond, getting closer and closer over a course no more than 20 to 30 yards long at most. Both the peep and I knew it. Flying south to north, it executed a sharp left turn and dove into the water like a Gannet. It was totally submerged briefly, but bounced up for air.
“Swoosh … the diminutive dark falcon had executed an incredibly tight 180, pulling up only several yards in the air and exploding down toward the white wet ball of fluff, sweeping even closer to the solitary peep gulping for air. The sandpiper dove again. The Peregrine did another 180 in an incredibly short, tight twist and sliced across the water in the other direction. The peep broke the surface again, and tried to take off. Repeat the previous two sentences again, and again, and again.
“The sandpiper would dive, be totally submerged, bob to the surface quickly, and attempt to lift off. The black falcon would spin and drive the shorebird back into the water, again and again and again. The sandpiper looked like some kid had been shipping a rock across the water.
“The falcon was pursuing the bird in a small, imaginary, ever shrinking box. I could not believe this Peregrine, executing tight turns with the speed and agility I would have assumed were limited to merlins. Not much larger than a large female Merlin, this bird had more horsepower, more energy, more heft, like a finely-tuned Porsche.
“Twenty three times it dove at the loneliest peep. I doubt an adult Peregrine would have expended all that energy for one small, very agile shorebird. The exuberance of this youthful bird was incredible. It was expending so much energy in so many gyrations in such tight quarters just because it could. The benefits of youth.
“Remember, we are talking about 23 dives in only 10 to 20 yards. Every time the peep bobbed up and began to take a step or two along the surface to take off, it was driven back down into the water.
“The 23rd foray was the last. As the ragged sandpiper bobbed to the surface gasping for oxygen, the talons were already there, yanking the shorebird into the air. Almost instantaneously, the sandpiper was limp, dangling lifeless from the falcon’s feet. I did not see the falcon do anything resembling a coup de grace. It was almost as though the exhausted shorebird had drowned trying to come up for air one last time, or had suffered cardiac arrest when those talons closed.
“The Peregrine wheeled left with its prey, flew back to the south over Stage Island Pool, and then banked right, disappearing over the top of Stage Island, near the observation deck, with its prey in tow. The lifeless husk of the sandpiper seemed so much smaller dangling in death than it had been when it was full of air and life. It was like looking at a grape skin with no fruit inside. Was it actually worth the effort? The price?
“I was saddened by the death of the sandpiper, but it served an important purpose. In a minute or two – it was so brief – but I never even thought about taking my eyes off the drama to look at my watch once, much less twice. I had witnessed two species that I love, two individuals birds do things I had not thought possible, or had ever imagined. I was drained.
“Meanwhile, the plovers and peep were now filtering back into the pool. If you hadn’t been there, it would seem as though nothing had ever happened.”