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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

36 seconds

I've always been impressed watching raptors capture prey.  Although I learned early on that many observers are empathetic to the prey (see story below), it's hard not to be awestruck by the superlatives involved in these events — the sheer speed, skill, power, and efficiency of the predators.

The story: I'll never forget the first time I saw a Peregrine Falcon capture a Green-winged Teal.  I was leading a birding trip and we had spent some time watching a flock of teal.  We had excellent looks at these beautiful ducks dabbling at the surface.  Suddenly, the teal took off.  We looked around for the cause just in time to see a falcon aiming straight for the flock.  The falcon successfully caught a teal and I couldn't help letting out a small cheer in the excitement of the moment.  I turned around to say, "Wow!  That was amazing!  Did you see that?", but quickly realized from the expressions on everyone's faces that the group was more focused on the well-being of the teal.

I believe that both views have their place.  And with that in mind, here's a local predator-prey interaction from Bodega Head on 1 January 2013.

I was fighting a cold, but decided to go out for a few minutes of fresh air.  I was sitting quietly by the shore, watching a flock of shorebirds (Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Whimbrel).  Suddenly, one of them gave an alarm call and the action began.  Luckily, I had my camera nearby, because this event lasted a total of 36 seconds.









This sequence shows a Northern Harrier capturing a Black Turnstone.  It was very quick and very dramatic!  I did feel badly for the turnstone, but I was happy this young harrier found a meal.  [Harriers primarily eat small mammals.  They're known to eat songbirds occasionally, but I don't how often they take shorebirds.]

In the pictures, look for the long legs and sharp talons of the harrier.  You can also see that the harrier has a facial disc (or ruff) — as in owls, this structure helps locate prey acoustically.  The size of the harrier suggests a female (females are larger than males).  The rufous coloration below indicates a younger bird.  But the yellow eyes are more typical of older birds, so perhaps this is a second-year female?

All in 36 seconds!

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