By Jacques Sirois
She is big, fast and dark. Her plumage also suggests that she is young. She has been flying around Anderson Hill, Enterprise Channel and the Trial Islands for at least two months.
Meet Liz, a female peregrine falcon. I called her Liz because of her regal style and impeccable poise. Seeing peregrines is always a thrill and the females are much large than males.
They became uncommon in Canada by the 1970s. Their numbers diminished from the use of pesticides – a buildup of chemical in their fatty tissue left them calcium-depleted and their eggs with thinner, less protective shells. With the banning of some pesticides and better management of others, they are now relatively common again. In fact, you can see them quite often if you are fast and know what to look for.
Sometimes Liz glides smoothly in the northerly breeze above Anderson Hill before disappearing towards Mount Baker. Or she is stationary above Beach Drive, wings wide open in the southwesterly winds; this is when she is most easily seen. However, she is at her best and fastest when she hunts birds. Peregrine falcons are super-active predators and among the fastest on the planet: they can dive towards a prey at speeds exceeding 300 kilometres per hour, we are told!
Dive bombing is what she was doing one afternoon last October, above the west bluff of Big Trial Island, where she spent much time going after gulls, mostly Heermann’s and Glaucous-winged gulls. She was fast and determined, but soon moved like a missile to the other side of the island and I could not see her knock anything out of the air from my kayak.
At this point I feel that Liz knows me and waits for me to paddle around. Last week, on the north side of Small Trial Island, where 100 or so shorebirds (black-bellied plovers, dunlins, black turnstones and surfbirds) are now wintering, she came out of the blue at full speed as soon as I flushed these shorebirds from their rocks, where they usually sit real tight, for obvious reasons. She dove, surged forward horizontally then upwards, then dove again, targeting a fat plover while flushing all the nearby ducks and gulls in a state of panic, then rapidly flew off my radar screen. Again, I could not see if she had been successful. I still hope to see a positive hit one day.
There is often of lot of action on our Oak Bay oceanfront. It usually involves birds hunting birds, including peregrine falcons, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks and merlins going after young, slow and inexperienced shorebirds, gulls, robins and sparrows. Yes, real, hot action in Oak Bay – do not roll your eyes, just open them.
Jacques Sirois is a retired biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service. He lives in Oak Bay and kayaks around the waterfront frequently.