Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Peregrine Falcon Identification on North Carolina's Outer Banks

Working to improve our skills at identifying distant peregrine falcons on North Carolina’s outer banks, we were fortunate that raptors appearing at a great distance almost always ended up flying closer to us than 400 meters, sometimes directly overhead, and sometimes very close and below eye level. The narrowness of Ocracoke Island at our observation site could be thanked for this advantage. So we were able to verify our identification of distant birds once they were close enough to display plumage and other ID-clinching details. This was a treat compared to the work at our spring hawk watch where migrating raptors first seen at a distance frequently stay very distant.

Clark and Wheeler in Hawks of North America describe peregrine falcon flight as typified by “shallow but stiff and powerful wingbeats, similar to those of cormorants.” This was a marvelously helpful description for us, because cormorants were visible from our lookout almost continually. When there were no raptors to look at, we could concentrate on the sometimes hundreds of cormorants in the air at one time and imagine their wingbeats on a distant raptor that needed identification.

Clark and Wheeler’s description of peregrines in a glide, “glides with wings level or with wrists below body and wingtips up,” was also very helpful, especially because most of the distant peregrines we saw were head-on pencil lines. After about a dozen peregrines, we began to feel pretty confidant of our distant identifications.

The other feature that really struck us about the peregrines was how quickly they changed from very distant to very close birds, even when they were powering into a headwind. This in itself proved not only distinguishing but exciting. Probably the thrill of seeing a peregrine in the wild is closely related to what is often the quickness and fleetingness of the experience.

Now that we’ve returned inland from our coastal birding, where several times we saw more than 12 peregrines zip past us in 30 minutes, we’re looking forward to seeing next spring’s 12 inland peregrines spread out over two months. We’re also looking forward to the confidence we’ll have in our identifications, even if the peregrines never get very close.

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