In a serendipitous encounter in early spring, I had the opportunity to observe nature’s most spectacular aerobatics.
Two of my friends and I hiked to a cliff close to our home, where there are wonderful views of the river valley and the Sutter Buttes. A heavily barred blue-gray form with a white chest and throat soared above us and circled around. It had a dark head with black sideburns, appearing helmet-like. The wings were long with dark tips, angular and sharply pointed.
We were observing a peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus. A second bird soon appeared with the same coloration but smaller. It was the tiercel. The meaning is Latin in origin for third. Falconers gave the male, which is one-third smaller than the female, this name many years ago.
The pair was sharing the air with turkey vultures and cliff swallows. There was no competition, however, to the peregrines’ grace, beauty and dazzling speed. In a dive, the peregrines are the fastest birds in the world, having been clocked at up to 200 mph.
The male tucked his wings close to his body and began to fall fast, then leveled out and, to our disappointment, dropped out of sight. The female soared above, scolding us as intruders, which led me to believe they were defending a territory and not just passing through.
The name “peregrine” is Latin in origin for “traveler” or “stranger,” but were these guys “neighbors?” The habitat was perfect, a vertical cliff 200 to 300 feet high, overseeing a wide expanse of valley with plenty of available prey.
The next day, I sought a different vantage with a better view of the cliff face and more cover to appear less threatening. The peregrines make a shorebird-like sound. The “Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding” describes the voice as “rather noisy during breeding season, with a variety of wails and cries; when excited or alarmed, hak hak hak hak given repeatedly.” I heard them before I saw them.
The birds accepted my presence in time, and I watched for several hours. The male spent most of his time on a perch tree jutting out from the cliff, and the female would swoop down as if she were going to land on the sheer rock face but then would veer away. She finally landed in a depression on a narrow ledge about 25 feet below the top.
The nest is called an eyrie (pronounced “airy”). The female selects a site, then scrapes out an indentation in which to lay her eggs. In the weeks to come, I saw her confine herself to this spot. She and her mate raised three eyas (fledglings still in the nest) from this precarious crib.
The peregrines defended their nest fiercely. When a turkey vulture veered too close, the female called out and her mate was up, chasing, nipping and plucking feathers from the larger bird’s tail. The vulture sought a less hostile environment. I was able to watch these highly evolved fliers defend against a golden eagle.
I saw the gift of nourishment exchanged in mid-air by the loyal hunter to his mate. The white balls of fluff toddling on the cliff’s edge to greet mom were so cute. I witnessed the juveniles take to the sky in close formation to develop their abilities, going higher and faster each time. These remarkable observations assure my continued efforts to see into the bird world.
There have been no previous nesting pairs recorded in Nevada or Yuba counties. What a pleasure to welcome our new neighbors.
Flammulated owls are the topic for SFAS’s next meeting Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Madelyn Helling Library on Maidu Avenue in Nevada City. Call 273-4599 for details or go to http://www.oro.net/~walt/SFAS.
Maria Cisneros is the field trip chairwoman for Sierra Foothills Audubon Society and a member of the SFAS board.
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