I’m idly watching a colony of thousands of nesting kittiwakes, white gull-like birds that don’t really do it for me.
But there’s a beautiful, rustic, derelict cannery along this stunning, cliff-lined inlet, where we’ve stopped on our way back to camp from an entertaining afternoon photographing puffins, so I’m content.
A Hunter Appears
A dark silhouette shoots across the cliff face. I pull my binoculars to my eyes. It’s a peregrine falcon! No wonder the kittiwakes all took to the water. The falcon is soaring, looking for an opportunity to hunt. Standing in front of the pilothouse on a walk-through boat, I’m alert and ready with my camera now.
Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest known animal, clocked at 240 mph in a dive. This is how they hunt. They are aerial ambush predators who torpedo smaller birds out of the sky, literally knocking the life out of their victim when they strike. Their long talons are designed to grasp in flight like grappling hooks to take their prey to the ground. As such specialized hunters, they cannot pluck a bird off the water or catch a bird who is sitting on the cliffs.
A few kittiwakes remain on their nests and in the cliffs. They are committed now. Taking to the air to join their flock below now would be a fatal mistake.
There’s not just one peregrine looking for a meal. It’s a family of four calling, coordinating, trying to goad a gull off the ledge. The falcons are moving so fast, perfectly camouflaged against these gray-brown rocky cliffs, that its hard to keep track of them through my lens.
Suddenly, a peregrine strikes a kittiwake in flight.
They are entwined, spiraling toward the bay. The peregrine has a precarious hold with just one foot and is fighting for lift while the gull struggles to break free from the talon’s grip.
Twenty feet above the water, the gull drops free and splashes into the water.
The peregrine glides upward, landing on a nearby outcrop, vocalizing what seems like an admonishment to the one that got away.
Bobbing up and down in the gentle waves, a hiked wing on the gull in the water belies the trauma.
It’s hard to tell if it’s a significant injury. Certainly, if the gull could fly away, he wouldn’t. Not with the falcons still above. The peregrine cannot pull him from the waves, and the kittiwake knows it. For the moment, he’s safe.
The falcon family continues to hunt and harass in between spells of sitting, waiting, and calling.
My meal awaits me, too, so I could not stay to see if they got theirs.