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The Peregrine's Gift

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This is birding. 

You have some days when you have to beg for a freezing cold ovenbird in pea-soup fog. And you have fun anyhow, because you're with people who get that sometimes birds appear and sometimes they don't. And you're outside and who can have a bad time outside?

And then there are days like these, Saturday May 1, 2015. On the last day of the New River Birding and Nature Festival, we've been imbibing warblers and tanagers on a trip I'm co-leading all morning. After lunch we all tromp down to Hawks Nest Overlook and gasp at the beauty of the wild and savage New River Gorge. 

It's getting hot and we're peeling layers like crazy. Those of us who aren't wearing long underwear and can't. Heh.

I just can't believe I get to be here and look out at all this. I'm kind of overloading, so I look down at the stone steps and find a teeny tiny plant which, in my bookless botany, I determine by its four petals and whorled leaves to be related to bluets, in the Rubiaceae. I can't go any farther, and it takes Jim McCormac, summoned via electrons, to tell me this is Blue Field Madder, an exotic weed. But a cute one. 

How bad can it be, tiny as it is? I decide I love it anyway.

Birding friends have a stony chat.

And someone says, "There's a peregrine perched up in that tree!" 

We crane our necks and marvel and feel blessed. But the show hasn't even begun.

The peregrine launches out over the gorge and suddenly rolls over in flight and falls like a stone or a spear. Somehow I manage to follow it in my binoculars, though it's likely doing better than 120 mph in that stoop, and I see it hit a barn swallow which explodes in a puff of feathers, falls limp and disappears into the river.

The peregrine circles a couple of times, looking for the swallow, but it can't see it. Too bad, waste of a good bird, but that's hunting for you.

I am shooting and shooting as the falcon circles up from the water's surface without once moving its wings. It rises, using the updraft from the river and cliffs, rises like a thought or a dream.

The raw steel blue of his back, the muscularity of his shoulders, the bright buttery cere. 

I can't believe he's coming so close. I fall over the dopey giant swiveling binocular, the kind that takes up precious space at every overlook, the machine nobody ever uses, trying to keep him in my sights. I click and click.

I have to show this bird to you, cropped in closer.

It's a male, Paco and I agree, murmuring softly as we watch it circle and rise; something subtle about its build and size and big eyes and bright cere. We are rapt, enraptored. He makes me promise to send him these photos. Here you go, Paco. Here's that bird we saw. 

As exquisite as it is up close, this living missile is even more thrilling against the backdrop of man's attempt to tame the New River, the dam we put in its wild and rugged path.

The peregrine is a gift, snatched away when we couldn't stop spraying DDT everywhere, and now returning. In my lifetime, it's back. When I was 14, I never thought I'd see a peregrine, ever. And now I'm reaching out and catching this one and keeping him to look at forever. And he's nesting somewhere on these ledges, or under the bridge, making more peregrines. My friend Tiny worked several summers hacking baby peregrines out in the Gorge, and now it's all paying off. They're here. They're HERE. Killing barn swallows, somehow making it past the great horned owls who like to eat its chicks, and thrilling us all.

I didn't even see the people on the rocks until I got these photos on the computer. Epic!

Eventually the peregrine circles back to its branch, then leaves altogether, the branch wiggling in the empty air as I look longingly at where it was, wishing.

Thus endeth the Peregrine Show. A fine show it was. And a fine bird it is. A gift.


Wow! What a gift indeed.

I live in central North Carolina. In March, I went to the back door to let the dogs out and my eye was drawn to the back fence. The yard is tiny- about 8 feet wide. We're in the heart of suburbia. And yet, a Peregrine Falcon was sitting on my back fence, looking at me. We looked at each other for about 30 seconds, before it flew back across the yard and vanished into the trees. I was in shock for several minutes. I still can't believe it was here. It was incredible. I went and looked up falcons as signs, and apparently they can be indicators of positive change. Still waiting on that.

The thrill of the unexpected, ""the unicorn effect", well captured in this blog post! Bravo!

Posted by Gail Spratley May 5, 2015 at 5:19 PM

You had me envious with the first picture. Then the set on the flying falcon was over the top.

I got to see Peregrine falcons on the nest last year in the Centennial Valley. And they are usually around on the refuges where I work in winter, as they follow the ducks. Looking forward to seeing my own in person in a few weeks.

Great pics of the peregrine. I appreciate seeing the in-flight ones. In my town, there's a pair of peregrines that have, appropriately enough, roosted for years on a ledge outside the building that houses the state's Department of Environmental Protection. And the building is named the Rachel Carson building.
We know the peregrines go hunting in the area--and while I have seen raptors circling, perching and even hunting, I have never been sure if one of them was a peregrine. With your photos, I think I will now easily recognize the dark helmeted head. Unless the peregrine is too fast for me, which no doubt it will be.

Wow! Aren't they just the centerfold birds of like, ever!

Wow! Aren't they just the centerfold birds of like, ever!

We have Peregrines that nest on a building in downtown Wilmington (DE), and a HawkCam was even set up so that people can watch the drama that unfolds. A friend on the outskirts of the city told me that a Peregrine was hunting in her backyard! My heart goes out to them; I hope they come back to the point where they are as common in my backyard as the Red-Tailed Hawk.

Posted by Anonymous May 6, 2015 at 3:59 AM

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I could go on and on. The peregrine is regally handsome as are your pictures.

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