The Point Breeze Peregrine
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
I'm in running mode, jogging up Easton St. and suddenly through the sweat in my eyes, I see a birder friend, Frances, walking toward me, gesturing up and to my right. Time to switch mental processes -- birding! I remember there has been a Peregrine Falcon reported, perching at the Point Breeze. I click the stopwatch and stop and scan the roofline -- nothing. "No, no, not on the top of the roof," says Frances, "Look on the ledge below the three windows." And sure enough there she is. Even without binoculars you could identify this bird -- a big, female Peregrine.
I say big and female because in birds of prey, the female is generally larger than the male. The falconry term for a male falcon is 'tercel' which is a French word meaning 'one-third smaller'. Falconers call the females 'falcons' and the males 'tercels'. This was a big one.
I came back later and she was still there, apparently digesting breakfast and contemplating whatever falcons contemplate. My friend Lee asked, "Why does it just sit there and stare at the gray paint?" Perhaps it's dreaming about that next fat Mourning Dove.
I saw my first Peregrine Falcon, then known as the 'Duck Hawk', back in the 50's. I was riding my bike out the Polpis Road and had gone up near Sankaty Light. It was late October and the wind was sweeping off the Atlantic. 'Sconset Bluff was making a big bow wave, which this superlative bird was using to good advantage, climbing, banking, and diving with great speed. The falcon rapidly changed directions and altitude, just playing in the air.
Arthur Cleveland Bent describes this type of maneuver near the Mount Tom ridge in western Massachusetts. "The tercel came along the cliff against the wind, diving, plunging, saw-toothing, rolling over and over, darting hither and yon like an autumn leaf until finally he would swoop up into the full current of air and be borne off on the gale to do it all over again. At length he tired of this, and, soaring in narrow circles without any movement of his wings … he rose to a position 500 or 600 feet above the mountain and north of the cliff. Nosing over suddenly, he flicked his wings rapidly 15 or 20 times and fell like a thunderbolt. Wings half closed now, he shot down past the north end of the cliff, described three successive vertical loop-the-loops across its face, turning completely upside down at the top of each loop, and roared out over our heads with the wind rushing through his wings like ripping canvas." This type of behavior inspires birders; thinking in our own minds what it must be like to have that kind of power.
Peregrines have also inspired royalty all over Europe and Asia. As the practice of hunting with hawks developed in the middle ages, only the highest royal ranks were allowed to carry these falcons.
As I mentioned, Peregrines used to be called 'Duck Hawks' and before that 'Great-footed Hawks'. Other falcons seen on Nantucket include the smaller Merlin, formerly the 'Pigeon Hawk', and the tiny, graceful Kestrel, which was the 'Sparrow Hawk'. Ornithologists like to change bird names about as often as they change their socks and this is another symptom of that.
In the last 50 years, this inspiring bird species has dropped to the brink of extinction and then come back again. Like the Osprey, Peregrines are at the top of their food chain. DDT levels get higher and higher as one animal eats another, which in turn, eats another. Like all birds, Peregrines lay eggs and the shells of these eggs have to protect the young bird until it can survive on the outside. DDT was poisoning their systems causing their eggshells to become so thin that the eggs would break before hatching time and the young birds died. Banning DDT, plus the use of captive breeding programs have brought our eastern race of the Peregrine almost back to the numbers before all this began.
One of my most memorable experiences was when we were attempting to count the clouds of Oldsquaws (now Long-tailed Ducks) as they went streaming by. Suddenly I saw a duck that seemed to be in trouble and realized it was literally being ridden out of the sky by a Peregrine Falcon. I'll leave this story to be finished in two weeks. This falcon is really worth more than one article.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.