January 31, 2023
This time of the year in Little Lake Valley is a moment for the raptors to shine. The deciduous trees are great for finding a Red-tailed Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk sitting in one of the oaks or willows. We are part of the Pacific Flyway here in Little Lake Valley. Hawks that live and breed seasonally in the plains of Kansas or farther east fly out and reside on the west coast for the winter or just stop by on their way down to Central and South America. We have an influx of common resident raptors during fall migration and others that are less common, such as the Ferruginous Hawks that may spend a few months here. Today I want to focus on the powerful Peregrine Falcon because recently I have been seeing both adult and juvenile birds hunting on the mitigation lands.
The Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, is the fastest bird of prey on the planet. There are many studies that have explored their maneuverability and ability to pursue a bird at over 200 mph in a steep dive, avoiding the ground and any obstacles as the prey evades them. If you have ever seen a Peregrine in action, it is a spectacular experience as the falcon bullets straight down on its target and obliterates the prey (be it a flying pigeon, gull, or duck) and all you can see is a burst of feathers. The impact of a falcon diving at 60 to 200 mph is mighty and as the neck of the prey is broken it becomes a limp bird in the talons of a master predator. Here is one story I would love to share about this impressive falcon.
Late last fall I was riding along Davis Creek in the utility task vehicle, when I reached one of the crew vehicles that was working on removing invasive Himalayan blackberry. I got out of the UTV (without my camera or binoculars!) to speak with them and as we were talking there was a loud ruckus and we all turned around to see what it was. The commotion turned out to be an adult Peregrine Falcon wrestling an adult drake Mallard firmly clutched in its talons, flying up from the creek bed. The falcon landed in the road and proceeded to pluck the feathers out. As we stood in awe, a flash of white and some screaming came out of nowhere as a White-tailed Kite dive bombed the Peregrine and knocked it off the Mallard. This caused the falcon to take off and leave the duck, who we thought was dead but got up and waddled away into the creek! I walked over to see if I could find the injured duck, but he had disappeared and apparently flown away, surviving the ordeal. We all agreed it was a National Geographic experience and were so happy we got to witness it, albeit without my camera!
These are the dramas that occur every day as I have observed Peregrines hassling Golden Eagles, Northern Harriers hassling Peregrines, and Killdeer involved in high-speed chases with the falcons and managing to get away, not once but twice! There is an abundance of birds in Little Lake Valley, which makes up the majority of the Peregrine Falcon’s diet.
One question I have is where exactly are they nesting in the surrounding region? Peregrine nest sites are mostly rocky cliffs from 35 to 1,300 feet high or higher. They will also nest on towers, silos, quarries, skyscrapers, tall churches, and bridges in areas without cliffs. The common denominator with the nest sites being that they require a shelf for the falcons to build their very minimal nest on. There are not many tall buildings and structures in the immediate area. One possible nest site are the gaps in the highway viaducts that are often utilized by barn owls. Another possibility are the rocky cliffs on the east and southwest ends of the valley. Peregrine Falcons have also been known to use Common Raven, Eagle, and Osprey nests but not regularly.
Whenever I experience the effortless flight and aerodynamics of the Peregrine Falcon, I am reminded by the power and beauty of evolution and nature.