Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Bruce Lyon has graced these pages with wonderful photos of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) nesting in California (see here, here and here), and now he adds a third batch to the set. His notes are indented:.

More photos of the nesting peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) I have been following on the California coast between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Today’s offerings focus on the birds in flight, where they really shine (sometimes gobsmackingly so).

Peregrines are famously the world’s fastest birds. A National Geographic video claims an astonishing 240 mph dive, determined with a falconry bird equipped with a transmitter and skydivers enticing it to chase a plunging lure. As the video shows, the birds reach their exceptional speeds by going into a stoop, i.e. diving with wings tucked close against the body to produce an aerodynamic teardrop shape. I often see my falcons stooping, mostly during hunts but also on windy days. The birds become feisty on windy days and they sometimes seem to stoop and fly loops just for the sheer fun of it—an avian airshow.

Below: the female stooping on a windy day.

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The birds are also remarkably maneuverable, even at high speeds. I have seen full tight loops during hunts. Below: The female suddenly flips upside down in flight.

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Below: the male partially tucks his wings to give me a speedy flyby.

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On windy days the falcons also become more feisty about chasing gulls, pelicans and other large birds. It seems like play to me because they never appear serious about trying to kill their victims. Below: A couple of photos of the peregrines chasing Western gulls.

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A pair of black oystercatchers tried to nest around the corner from the falcon nest, just out of sight of the nest. The falcons soon began chasing the oystercatchers, first by trying to sneak around the corner and ambush them. The oystercatchers got wise to this strategy and one oystercatcher then stood sentry at the corner where it could watch the falcons. This did not stop the falcons who then began chasing the oystercatchers out over the water. It looked like the falcon might be trying to herd the oystercatchers, perhaps to get them off balance and then grab them.

Below. Male falcon herding the oystercatchers.

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Below. The oystercatchers were not amused. After a couple of days of this harassment they deserted their nest and moved to a different part of their territory.

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The open coastal landscape around falcon nest lets me observe the birds going off to hunt, and I have been lucky to see several successful hunts. The birds often watch for birds from the nest cliffs and then suddenly take off when they see a hunting opportunity. I can tell when the leave to chase something because they are clearly flying with a purpose—fast and direct. They must have remarkable eyesight because some of the birds they have gone out after have been more than a mile away, according to my Google Earth estimates. I have seen two hunting methods: climbing up very high, nearly out of sight, and then diving in a stoop, or simply chasing a bird down and grabbing it out of the air.

Below: The male launches from the cliff, perhaps to go after some prey.

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I suspected that the birds might hunt cooperatively as a team because they often leave the cliffs at the same time and then fly off together rapidly. Below: the team heading off to chase something together. The size difference is apparent, with the smaller male above.

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I eventually watching a successful cooperative hunt. The pair flew off north but then quickly circled around to the south, behind a bluff. Their U turn made suspicious so I scanned southward with my binoculars and saw a lone dove flying inland, half a mile away. The peregrines suddenly appeared, streaking like meteorites. The male, in the lead, swooped at the dove but missed because the dove swerved. A split second later, an explosion of feathers—the female had done her job. She followed the tumbling dove to the ground and then brought it to her favorite plucking site near the nest. Since then I have seen several tag team chases and kills. The photo below is pretty crappy but it shows a different cooperative chase—that time the dove (bird in center) got away:

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Below. The male returns from a successful hunt with a freshly killed collared-dove:

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The falcons also have aerial prey transfers. The male sometimes transfers prey to the female, who then takes it to the nest. After the chicks fledge, both parents transfer prey to the chicks. In transfers, the prey is dropped into the air and the recipient has to snatch it while it is falling.

Below: The female has just grabbed a dove the male dropped.

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Below: Sometimes the fledgling falcons are kind of klutzy. Twice, the parent had to fetch a gull chick that the fledgling failed to grab after the drop. The parent gave up and brought the gull chick to the cliff, where the fledgling picked it up. It then dropped it in the sea. Doh!

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20 Comments

  1. Posted November 16, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Wow, spectacular series of photos Bruce!

    Thanks for sharing them.

  2. somer
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Astonishing pics.

  3. Debra Coplan
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Thrilling photos! Thank you

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Fabulous pics Bruce! How wonderful to experience all this so closely! Such a treat to share a small part of this with you.

  5. eric
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Great pics and awesome commentary. Thanks very much! What remarkable birds.

  6. jaxkayaker
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Phenomenal photos, thanks for sharing. I’ve always wanted to get a good look at peregrine falcons, and I live close enough to make a trip. Is Bruce willing to give any additional locality information?

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted November 16, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      I am not willing to divulge the location of this nest; it is never a good idea to publicize raptor nest locations. However, peregrines are pretty common all along the coast and I could probably direct you to places where you would have a good chance of seeing them. There are also several widely known nest sites in parks inland where you would have a great chance of seeing the bird. Send me an email and I can think about where you might have your best chance.

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted November 16, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. How would I go about sending you an email?

        • Bruce Lyon
          Posted November 16, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          belyonATucsc.edu

  7. Damien McLeod
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Great photos.

  8. darrelle
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Wonderful photos and narrative! Thank you for sharing Bruce. Peregrines have long been a favorite of mine.

    Peregrines are a central feature of a famous, or infamous, motorcycle myth. The story is that designers at Suzuki were partially inspired by the Peregrine in their design of the ground breaking, legendary, Hayabusa (which means Peregrine falcon, according to most) motorcycle. The main goal of the design was to create a production motorcycle capable of reliably going 300 kph. They released the bike in 1999 and it achieved the design goal, in spades. It was actually a bit faster than the goal.

    After much grumbling and criticism from various governments around the world and fearing anti-motorcycle regulations, the major motorcycle manufacturers supposedly made a “gentlemen’s agreement” on their own to install top speed limiters in any motorcycles they made from then on to limit the top speed to 300 kph. Whether all that is accurate I couldn’t say, but the 300 kph limiters were indeed added by the 2000 model year and are still the norm. Of course, pretty much immediately tinkerers figured out how to bypass the various types of limiters and sell them to others. For as little as $40.

    I owned a 1st generation (there is now a 2nd) Hayabusa for many years. It was an amazing bike. On a top speed run the bike, with stock gearing, would run right up to the limiter, with authority, no straining. With no internal mods, just intake, exhaust and fuel management, but the stock clutch, I managed to run in the high 9s in the quarter mile by my 2nd run. And I’m not very experienced at drag racing. And, though it is definitely not a track bike, too heavy, too long and too low at the bottom, it handles well enough that even at a road racing track that favors small bikes I was running in the top 10 percent among amateurs. And yet the bike was an everyday, easy to ride, comfortable bike that you could hop on to run an errand, go for a cross country trip or, with a couple of hours of set up, take to the track.

    Inspired, in part, by the Peregrine falcon. I regretted selling it before the buyer even picked it up.

  9. rickflick
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Amazeballs! I find myself imagining being able to cavort with them and fold my wings and dive at 240 mile per hour. What a gas!

  10. Posted November 16, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    “The falcons also have aerial prey transfers. The male sometimes transfers prey to the female, who then takes it to the nest.”

    — Just think of how hard it was to make in-air refueling for planes!

  11. Jenny Haniver
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Superb photos and commentary. Just this a.m. before reading this post, I saw a small hawk perched on a branch, scanning for prey, and I wondered how they teach their young to hunt, also other birds that catch live prey, especially in the air, including insects. I see crows, towhees, and other birds showing their chicks how to forage, but it’s quite different to hunt for prey on the wing. This post has been eminently instructive in answering my question. Thanks very much.

  12. Posted November 16, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    These are such special photos! Absolutely wonderful insights into the lives of these Peregrines. Thanks for sharing with us, we are truly privileged.

  13. Claudia Baker
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Wow, these are fabulous. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

  14. Frank Bath
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful photo essay. Thank you.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Stunning photos and fascinating notes about these birds’ behaviors! Thank you, Bruce!

  16. Larry
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Amazing portrayal of animal intelligence and abilities. Great work capturing these behaviors. I stand in awe.

    • frednotfaith2
      Posted November 19, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m sitting in awe! Great photographs of amazing birds.


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