The Peregrine Falcon and the Snowy Owl

Oct 9, 2018

Snowy Owl
Credit wikicommons / bit.ly/2CwJZ07

The Snowy Owl flew before me, out of the dunes and onto the outer beach, and landed in all its softness.  I had barely a minute to admire the wonder of its plumage, its squat white body, somewhat incongruous on a sandy beach, its large yellow blinking eyes, when out of nowhere a Peregrine Falcon appeared, and, screaming, plunged from the sky to surge and swipe at the owl, again and again and again.  


 

The owl made half-hearted attempts to dodge the falcon, seeming to hunch its shoulders and duck its head, but was for the most part passive.  After a half dozen or so attempts the falcon abruptly flew off and within seconds was nowhere to be seen.   

 

The owl sat there for a short while, and, when my attention was elsewhere, left.  Perhaps twenty minutes later it again flew before me, out over the beach, with its silent and steady, massive rowing wing beats- and again the Peregrine appeared out of nowhere and began to attack.  The two flew out over the water, with the falcon flying above the owl and repeatedly swooping down and striking out; it was difficult to ascertain whether actual contact was achieved.  After each attack, the falcon would effortlessly soar, like a balloon, far above the owl and then plunge again in an arc.  It certainly did have the advantage, in terms of agility, but I did see the owl turn in midair to defend itself against the aggressor.   

 

The drama took itself back over the beach, past the lighthouse and across Hatches Harbor into the dunes near the dike road.  The owl finally alighted on a dune, the falcon swooped at it a few times, and then flew powerfully back over the marsh.  It landed on some kind of raised object, perhaps a post, and sat amidst the Spartina grass.   

 

I lowered myself onto the damp sand and watch the falcon:  boldly erect, upright, radiating a palpable tension, a bound spring, a killing machine.  All about it were American Black Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers swimming in the shallow water or waddling on the flats, some quacking; Herring Gulls flew in- some directly over it.   

 

I kept thinking: “This it is!  Here is the victim.”  But no.  Not a feather on the falcon moved.  It waited for the owl.  It was absolutely quiet.  There was no wind.  I have never been more alive. 

 

There was no resolution to this drama, no end.  Unlike the nature documentaries, hundreds of hours of observations spliced together into a satisfying episode, my sojourn had to end with the falcon in the marsh, the owl in the dunes, each waiting.  After nearly four hours, it was time to leave.  I had to think, though, sitting there on the damp sand: was this a clash of competitors, or a simple case of a predator that had keyed in on its (large, white) prey?  Is every being, in the end, prey?  Surely these two species coexist in the Arctic: how so?  And to the larger question: for whom was I rooting? 

 

The politically correct answer is that I rooted for the process, but honestly, I thought “Not a Snowy Owl!  Take a gull, take a duck!”, knowing full well, and taking some relief in the knowledge, that I had no say in the matter.