The other day, I was doing a shorebird survey on the beach when I noticed something dark fly up from the passenger side of the truck. I was looking out the driver’s window focusing on the shorebirds along the waterline and didn’t notice the dark bird that had been sitting on the sand. I’m guessing it didn’t notice me either, or I wouldn’t have gotten so close to it.

I stopped and saw that it was a peregrine falcon. I must have spooked it off its breakfast because it was circling about 30 feet off the ground intent on getting back to the spot where it had been. I backed off and it landed, grabbed its prey, flew down the beach a bit, and landed again. I approached slowly and got some photos. I’ve seen lots of peregrines perched up high on cell towers and out on small bay islands, but I’ve never seen one sitting on the beach. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos that I could tell the prey was a ruddy turnstone, a chunky shorebird that spends a lot of time foraging along the beach.

The peregrine falcon has been billed as the fastest bird on Earth, and indeed, it has been calculated that they can reach speeds of 238 miles per hour. Wow. Their average cruising speed is 24 to 33 miles per hour. That’s more my speed, but I wouldn’t want to be pursued by one of these birds. They usually begin their pursuit from above and then fold their wings and drop on their prey from above at incredible speeds. When a peregrine falcon grabs a bird from the air with its talons, it grabs it with so much force that it looks like the bird explodes. They have been documented preying on 450 species of North American birds, but their main prey are shorebirds, ducks, pigeons and songbirds.

The word peregrine means wanderer or pilgrim and peregrine falcons occur all over the world. In North America, they breed in open landscapes with cliffs or skyscrapers for nest sites. They spend the winter on barrier islands, mudflats and coastlines, which is where we find them during winter in Texas. Their populations crashed in the 1950s because of DDT poisoning, but they are now slowly recovering through extensive efforts to reestablish them at nest sites in the Eastern U.S.

Peregrine falcons are beautiful birds with graceful falcon flight, and if you are lucky, you might get to witness one zoom along the beach or perch on a power pole. Look for the long wings and barred body with a strong mustache stripe down its cheek. Be careful not to confuse them with the smaller merlin or American kestrel — both beautiful falcons as well.

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Susan Heath is the director of conservation research of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.

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