Early morning and a peregrine falcon perches high on a sea cliff on the outer coast. Surf beats against the foot of the cliff, spindrift hangs like mist and the rising wind tastes of salt. The peregrine watches intensely. Far below, a rhinoceros auklet returns to its rookery from feeding at sea, skimming the ocean’s surface. The falcon slips from its perch, folds its wings, and plunges headlong toward the sea.
A peregrine’s dive, called a stoop, has been clocked at 200 miles per hour—the fastest flight of any bird known. It falls like a bullet aimed at its prey. When the peregrine pulls out of its stoop, talons extended to strike, the apparent wind across its wings sounds like a canvas sail ripping from luff to leach. The sound incites panic in the auklet.
The auklet breaks left, then right, desperately trying to avoid the closing talons. The peregrine follows each movement as closely as a shadow, twisting in its own wind. Its powerful wings encompass the auklet and beat it into the sea. With a deft turn the peregrine banks and plucks the stunned auklet from the water, talons striking through feathers to bone, then regains altitude with each wing beat. The auklet’s struggle ends abruptly when the peregrine’s beak closes on its neck, cleaving its spine. The severed head tumbles through the air.
It seems a cruel reality but the peregrine is not without enemies of its own. The most deadly of those is ourselves. The pesticide DDT exterminated the species on this wild coast forty years ago; they have since been re-introduced artificially.
Adult peregrines are also taken from their roosts at night by great horned owls and Golden eagles prey upon their young. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks steal food from them in flight and common crows steal food cached on the ground. Peregrines may also cause deadly damage to other peregrines invading their territory or too closely approaching a nest. They will stoop on an interloper as they would prey.
Nor is the peregrine’s prey entirely without defense. The shorebirds, gulls, and terns they typically hunt often flock together when threatened, turning in unison like a choreographed dance, presenting no isolated individual for the peregrine to target.
Here on the outer coast, their prey includes rhinoceros auklet, Cassin’s auklet, savannah sparrow, northwestern crow, common murre, Leach’s storm petrel, even glaucous-winged gulls despite their size, but shorebirds are the most common prey—the American avocet and willet especially.
On the coast, peregrine’s prefer tall cliffs or offshore stacks for nesting. Cliffs offer the advantage of hunting from a perch, defensible nests, and updrafts for soaring. They like a broad view. At Sequim, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they usually perch on the stumps and snags of Douglas fir and western redcedar, on coastal cliffs and bluffs, drift logs and root balls, branches or boards. On Puget Sound, they make do with sailboat masts, industrial cranes, and waterfront building, navigation towers and utility poles, large ships, grain elevators, and water towers.
They are fiercely defensive of their young. Peregrines will not hesitate to attack a bald eagle if it approaches the nest too closely.
Young falcons are fledged at about six weeks of age. On the Olympic coast that’s usually between June 2 and July 20. The raucous cries of fledglings in flight begging food from an adult can be heard at great distance. It is part of the wildness of this coast.
For the first 2-3 weeks after first flight, prey is mostly transferred to the fledglings while still perched. Afterwards, it’s passed directly from the parent’s beak or foot while in flight. Next, prey is dropped from aloft and the fledglings required to retrieve it in the air. Finally, the family hunts together, the fledgling closely following as its parent stoops on prey, attempting the capture the prey as it tries to escape from the parent.
Here is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.
This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow.
Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.