Doug Chickering of Groveland shares with us a dramatic tale of peregrine falcons on the hunt:
"Today, Sept. 29, Lois Cooper and I drove down to Plum Island with few expectations, but some hopes. It was warm but drizzly, dank and dreary. Not only that, it was pretty quiet. There were few ducks in the pans, fewer shorebirds in that area, and even the egrets were scattered sparsely over the marshes. I could hear some chirps from the bushes and the occasional towhee calls, but nothing seemed inclined to come out into the open to give me a look or even a glimpse. I stopped briefly at Hellcat and checked Ralph Goodno woods, where yesterday I had a brief look at two yellow-crowned night herons as they plunged into the deeper woods. Nothing (was) there today. The five turkeys were out in the road, and we had a flurry of robins at the crosswalk, but other than that, nothing.
"We decided to check out Stage Island Pool and possibly Emerson Rocks. The moment we arrived at Stage Island Pool, the whole character of the day changed. Here we found birds, lots of birds. Well over a thousand ducks all through the pool. It was the usual stuff: black ducks, mallards, many mallards and plenty of green-winged teal. Mixed in with them were a handful of Gadwalls and pintails and even some blue-winged teal.
"Then, there were the shorebirds, mostly Dunlin but with large numbers of black-bellied plovers and semipalmated sandpipers, along with a few white-rumped sandpipers. They had crowded onto the shore areas, mixed in with the ducks, which made it difficult to get an idea how many there were or even if there was something rare lurking within the crowd. Another difficulty was that the shorebirds were extremely nervous and would occasionally take flight, then swoop over the surface of the water and usually north over the dike, with the warning whistle of the black-bellies filling the air. We would conclude that they were gone, but each time, they returned.
"Of course, each time they burst into flight, Lois and I searched the sky around us for raptors. Finally, when they took flight for the third or fourth time, I caught sight of a peregrine falcon, coming in low from the south, strafing the surface like a torpedo-bomber, sending the shorebirds into their tight-panicked formations. When the peregrine finished the pass, it banked back over the pool, and it was then I saw another peregrine pull in behind it. Then, the two of them made a second pass at the pool, in tandem.
"Halfway through the sweep, the two falcons abruptly pulled up into a steep climb, and as they did, they were suddenly joined by a third peregrine, and at the edge of my field of vision, I noticed a fourth peregrine coming in. The two original birds got some altitude, then plunged right through (so it seemed from our vantage point) one of the tightly flying flocks of shorebirds. As they did, one of the shorebirds seemed to pop loose from the formation, was pursued briefly and then hit and grabbed by the lead falcon.
"He must not have had a good grip for the bird — I think a Dunlin came loose, dropped, tried to gain its balance and started an agonizing fluttering away when it was picked neatly out of the air by the trailing peregrine. With the unfortunate Dunlin secure in its grip, the peregrine then flew right over Lois and me, at about a height of 15 feet and with the other two peregrines in hot pursuit.
"The fourth peregrine, the one left out, began to make hunting passes of his own, but the shorebirds, by this time, had concluded that it was best to be elsewhere and had moved off in a hurry. This bird then pulled up and landed in a tree on the other side of the pool, where I was able to put the scope on it. A magnificent creature, dark and well marked.
"One of the odd things about the whole exciting episode was that during all of this, none of the ducks took to the air at all. Of course, they swam around in excited flocks when the peregrine strafed them, but none took to the air. Perhaps they sensed that the peregrines were targeting the shorebirds and decided that it was best to stay put, keep one's head down and play the percentages. I have seen a peregrine make a successful catch only, maybe, a half-dozen times during my lifetime. This was probably the most spectacular.
"When I started birding 30 or so years ago, seeing a peregrine falcon was roughly equivalent to seeing a gyrfalcon today. In fact, I saw my first gyrfalcon before I saw my first peregrine. In those days there was a lot of hand-wringing and speculation of them going extinct. But wise heads intervened and they were reintroduced. The first peregrine I ever saw was in downtown Boston perched on the edge of it birthplace, a hacking box. Now, we see them every year; we see them in spring and fall, and we know where we can reliably find one on the Gloucester Town Hall in the winter. Today, I saw four of them hunting. A story of restoration that enlivens the spirit. Unless, of course, you're a Dunlin."
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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher's Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.
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