Dom Peregrine -- Very Cold Duck for Dinner
-- by Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
Now, we pick up our tale from 14 days past… Imagine yourself to be a Long-tailed Duck. Some people still call you an 'Oldsquaw' and that's what we'll call you here. You've been out ten miles south of the Point of Breakers, being tossed by the Atlantic waves, diving 20 to 40 feet down to find mussels and sand eels. Your tummy is full and you're flying, several hundred feet up in the air with thousands of other ducks, just coming over the beach between Madaket and Smith's Point. You can see your resting-place for the night, the lee side of Tuckernuck Island. You've been doing this routine every day since late October.
BANG! Something hits you from above and behind and with a shock you realize you are no longer flying yourself, another bird is flying you!
Below, the human observer watching this stream of ducks go over realizes something's wrong with one of them. It looks like it's trying to land, but that just doesn't happen here. All the ducks fly past this point to Nantucket Sound. Then I realize it's not just a duck, there is a Peregrine steering it to the ground.
Down they both come with a bit of a thump, almost in the wash of the waves. Immediately, two opportunistic Great Black-backed Gulls approach, looking for duck dinner as well, and the Peregrine tries to take off, carrying the duck. About 15 feet in the air, the hawk drops its prey and after a moment's hesitation, the 'squaw flies away over the ocean. The gulls and the Peregrine all sit there with no dinner. This duck undoubtedly will have some stories to tell when it gets back to its flock.
So, this particular Peregrine must soar back up in the air and start all over again. The good news is that there are still thousands more ducks yet to go over and it's easy to pick another one off.
Peregrines love to hang out on our beaches, but range over great amounts of territory, as witnessed by the one that likes to perch at the Point Breeze. During our Christmas Bird Count, a Peregrine swooped in and perched for a few moments on top of one of the street lanterns at the airport, then buzzed off again. Great Point Light is another favorite perch.
Strangely enough, these hunters are often city birds. I've seen them playing in the wind around the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago (yes, I bird everywhere). There are several which winter in almost every city with skyscrapers (including Boston). Tall buildings resemble their normal habitat, high cliff ledges, and the abundant, semi-domestic, feral pigeons, provide a sumptuous diet.
Here, Peregrines arrive in October and stay through April, often coming in when the wind doesn't favor them, quartering a southwesterly wind, rather than waiting to be driven by one from the north.
They may be the world's fastest birds, so fast they are hard to measure. You can drive along in your car and notice that you are just keeping up with a flock of Canada Geese at 40 miles per hour. But with Peregrines, we are talking about speeds in excess of 100 in close to a vertical dive. If you're driving a hundred, you better not be watching birds. But with an airplane…
A pilot, diving in his biplane was amazed to see one of these large falcons flash past him and noted that his plane was doing 175 miles per hour. But a Peregrine in pursuit is not concerned with speed records. Let's just say that there is no bird that can out-fly one of these hunters if it has been chosen for the next meal.
Even first flight is dramatic for this species. Think about diving off a vertical cliff face for the first time. A young falcon has all the necessary equipment, but controlling it -- that's the trick. So it was stunning for an observer to see one of these first 'solos'. After launching out from the ledge, the falcon dropped down and then suddenly caught an updraft and spent fifteen minutes or so, circling about the gorge before almost casually landing in a tree. So much programming already present in the brain! I mean, it had never SEEN a tree before.
To see a Peregrine, look for a crow-sized hawk with pointed wings and tail. They appear dark and 'relentless' in flight. On the beach, watch for a chunky, rather erect, dusky bird perched on driftwood. Use your binoculars and observe the commanding presence that has made this the falcon of royalty. Also be glad that we had the wisdom to stop using the environmental poisons that almost drove these wonderful creatures to extinction.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
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.