Prairie Falcons

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I’ve posted a lot recently about ducks and songbirds.  I’m going to take a break from that today and post about one of my favorite raptors, the Prairie Falcon.

Yesterday morning, I took a drive into Arizona’s agricultural flatlands with a friend, Ned Harris.  Agricultural country is a great place to look for raptors, especially in winter.  Large numbers of them visit the area for a few months each year.  The habitat is perfect for these birds.  Agricultural activity attracts large numbers of rodents and seed eating birds, such as sparrows, doves, and blackbirds.  The raptors, in turn, find the pickings to be relatively easy.  The land is as flat as a table and the birds, many of which are ambush predators, sit on high spots — often, utility poles — and use their exceptional vision to scan the terrain for movement.  Something moving — a rodent or a small bird — may often be a target for an ambush from above by one of the raptors.

Raptors in the flatlands include Prairie Falcons.  These very handsome falcons are closely related to Peregrine Falcons.  They’re not quite as fast as Peregrines and their diet is somewhat more varied (Peregrines specialize in hunting birds whereas Prairie Falcons will take birds and rodents). Prairie Falcons have brown backs and outer wings and brilliant white breasts and abdomens spotted with brown.

They are extremely wary birds and thus, very difficult to photograph. Often I’ve watched a Prairie Falcon fly off long before I can train my camera on it.  Yesterday, however, Ned and I were very lucky to find a falcon perched on a low post.  We were delighted to discover that the bird was reluctant to fly.  I managed to get a few portraits of this attractive falcon.

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Notice the dark vertical line passing through the Prairie Falcon’s eye.  That’s called a “malar stripe” and all falcons, including kestrels, Merlins, Prairie Falcons, and Peregrines, have it.

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These birds are easy to distinguish from hawks, such as Red-tailed Hawks, both by their physical appearance and by the way they fly.  A hawk is a fairly ponderous flier, pumping its wings slowly and regularly, until it gains altitude.  Hawks much prefer to soar, floating on air currents with their wings outstretched and stationary, than to fly actively.  Prairie Falcons, by contrast, are avian sprinters.  They fly with rapid, highly rhythmic wingbeats and can attain a horizontal speed that is much faster than any hawk can manage.  They can also dive with blinding speed.  Supposedly, Peregrines, Prairie Falcons’ close cousins, have been clocked in dives at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour.

I’m entitling this last image:  “If No One Moves it May not Notice Us.”  Ned and I were astonished to watch a Prairie Falcon land on a utility pole amidst a large flock of perched blackbirds.

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The blackbirds — prey for this falcon — didn’t budge.  They just sat there, very quietly, until the falcon decided to fly off.  I’m not sure what motivated this behavior but I think it’s at least possible that prey species find sitting still to be a defense against being seized and eaten by the falcon.  I think that the falcon’s hunting instincts may be aroused by movement and much less so by stationary targets.  Or, perhaps the blackbirds were simply playing the odds.  After all, there were dozens of them and the falcon can capture only one at a time.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/2000.

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