The other day I was doing a shorebird survey on the beach when I noticed something dark flying off the passenger side of the truck. I looked out the driver’s window focusing on the shorebirds along the waterline and didn’t notice the dark bird that was sitting on the sand. I guess he didn’t notice me either, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten so close.
I stopped and saw it was a peregrine falcon. I must have scared him from his breakfast as he was spinning about 30 feet off the ground with the intention of returning to where he was. I backed up and he landed, grabbed his prey, walked down the beach a bit, and landed again. I approached slowly and took some photos. I saw lots of peregrine falcons perched on cell phone towers and on small islands in the bay, but never saw one sitting on the beach. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos that I could tell the prey was a red tourniquet, a large shorebird that spends a lot of time foraging along. the beach.
The peregrine falcon has been touted as the fastest bird in the world, and indeed it has been calculated that it can reach speeds of 238 miles per hour. Wow. Their average cruising speed is 24 to 33 miles per hour. It’s more my speed, but I wouldn’t want to be chased by one of these birds. They usually start their pursuit from above, then fold their wings and drop on their prey from above at incredible speeds. When a peregrine falcon catches a bird in the air with its talons, it catches it with such force that it looks like the bird explodes. They have been documented as prey for 450 species of birds in North America, but their primary prey is shorebirds, ducks, pigeons, and songbirds.
The word pilgrim means wanderer or pilgrim and peregrine falcons are found all over the world. In North America, they breed in open landscapes with cliffs or skyscrapers as nesting sites. They overwinter on barrier islands, mudflats and coasts, where we find them during the winter in Texas. Their populations collapsed in the 1950s due to DDT poisoning, but they are now slowly recovering thanks to considerable efforts to reestablish them at nesting sites in the eastern United States.
Peregrine falcons are beautiful birds with graceful falcon flight, and if you’re lucky you may be able to witness zooming along the beach or perching on a utility pole. Look for the long wings and barred body with a strong mustache stripe down his cheek. Be careful not to confuse them with the little merlin or the American kestrel, two magnificent hawks as well.
Susan Heath is Director of Conservation Research at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond on their wintering grounds in Central and South America.