Since reading the poetic prose of H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s story of how training Mabel the goshawk carried her through wild sadness that followed the death of her beloved father, it’s been all about the raptors around here.
Easter at Speers Point meant ospreys relaxing in the late afternoon sun.
And yesterday, on Cowan Creek, the contractual obligation white bellied sea-eagle.
Then, just when I’d resigned myself to a pleasant if uneventful paddle after three hours on the water, there was an explosion of action right off my bow. Two birds in an aerial battle, tumbling and squabbling over a kill. The loser flew off, disgruntled; the death-dealer pulled up in the bright morning sunshine on a branch over the river, and waited for me to get out my camera.
A new bird! One I thought I’d never seen on any waterway. A peregrine falcon.
It turns out I had seen these birds before, long ago and far away – a pair tussling with ravens over a ledge to nest on at Malham Cove in Yorkshire. Cliffs (or, if they are hard to find, skyscrapers) are one of the essential requirements of this beautiful raptor. RB reminded me that peregrines used to nest in the ventilation towers of the tunnels under the River Mersey and high up in the Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the enormous red sandstone building I could see from my desk during my decade as a Scouser.
Peregrines may be the most widespread bird in the world, living on every continent except for Antarctica and on many islands (although strangely, considering its status as a bird watching paradise, not New Zealand). Its name is derived from the Latin for “the wanderer” although only five of the nearly twenty subspecies – those breeding in the northern Arctic – really migrate very far.
For all their capacity to adapt to life in the city – eating feral pigeons and nesting in highrises – peregrines are widespread but not really common. Since they mostly prey on smallish birds, themselves often insect eaters, falcons bioaccumulate pollutants. The use of organochlorines in insecticides like DDT devastated their numbers in the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1960s there were no peregrines in the Eastern US and the birds were declared an endangered species. Numbers have bounced back, in Australia and elsewhere, although they are still classed as “rare” here. And recent work in Europe and Canada has observed a new chemical – flame retardants – turning up in the blood stream of peregrine chicks.
Once peregrines find a good nesting site, it’s a keeper. Apparently, a falcon skeleton found at the back of a cliff-top eyrie in Tasmania has been carbon dated at 19,000 years, which makes that spot the oldest known bird’s nest. As I noodled along the northern shore of Cowan Creek, I’d admired the 100 metre high cliffs of Looking Glass Spur, eucalypts halfway up the face finding impossible footholds in the sandstone. I wonder if my falcon and its mate have a scrape there, high above the expanse of the estuary. Peregrines don’t eat fish but hunting grounds by water offer the space for their deadly turn of speed.
I feel less disappointed by my failure to spot the raptor’s stoop or to capture the battle on film after I figured out what I was watching. The fastest animal in the world, dropping on its prey at nearly 400 kilometres an hour. That poor bird clutched in its talons -maybe a galah, the favoured meal of the big-footed Australian “macropus” subspecies – never had a chance.
I watched for twenty minutes, as she plucked and dismembered her meal, unperturbed by the rowdy parade of jet skiiers, cruisers and powerboats. Galah feathers drifted down from her branch, making a delicate trail of death across the bottle green water.
For a few dodgy moments, I thought the gobbets of galah might be joined by flotsam from my shattered craft as Egg was washed perilously close to oystershell sharpened rocks. And, if I had the Bond-style rocket launcher I’ve often fantasised about while ploughing through powerboat wakes on sunny Sunday mornings, fragments of several jet skis.
I’m guessing my peregrine was a “she”. Females are a third bigger than the tiercels – the males – but I didn’t have the chutzpah to hurl a swiss army knife up the tree for scale. The two mid-air combatants looked well matched – two males or two females. Definitely not a pair. Since peregrines mate for life – up to 20 years – and often hunt cooperatively, it would seem to be unwise from the point of view of domestic harmony, anyway, to bicker over food.
In fact, Derek Ratcliffe describes exactly what I saw: “feet-grappling over disputed food items” which happens, he says, “at food-territory boundaries during the non-breeding season” (1993, 201). It seems these battles are nearly always between birds of the same sex, although sometimes peregrines fight with other crag-loving birds as well. RB remembers peregrines in springtime at the cliffs at Creagh Dhu, attacking ravens, stooping then zooming straight up to the heights to do it all over again. Sometimes pairs of peregrines will even take on the great golden eagle over rare and valuable real estate.
So maybe there’s more than one pair of peregrines on that beautiful bit of country. Perhaps I’ll see this magic bird again, or her mate, or her rival, until I’m as blase about a peregrine strike as a whistling kite soaring on a thermal. But yesterday, as I took my four hundred photographs while the peregrine peaceably disembowelled its meal, showing the equanimity that makes them the favoured hunting falcon, I felt truly blessed.
More stories about raptors in Berowra’s backyard (and mine):
The beautiful white morph of the grey goshawk in Bluetongue’s back
A hunting collared sparrowhawk in Nude trees and naughty birds
The whistling kites of Bar and Peat Islands in Two sad islands, three whistling kites
The many white-bellied sea eagles of the Hawkesbury and Lake Macquarie in Encounters with eagles