While usually well suited to their lifestyle, there are certain times and certain places where particular birds simply appear to be out of their element. Take quail for example (Scaled, Gambel’s, Bobwhite, take your pick). Adapted to spending most of their life running around under tall grass and shrubs, when flushed, their short flight barely begins before they appear to be searching for a safe place to land. At the other extreme, Albatross who occupy months at a time soaring above the oceans (eating and even sleeping in flight) can barely manage to take a few steps on land without tripping over their own wings and feet.
But then there are the instances when a bird’s unique qualification for the task at hand are on full display—moments when it becomes abundantly clear that millions of years of evolution have prepared them for this exact time and place. For me, there are few better examples of such evolutionary optimization than those displayed by the flight of the Peregrine Falcon. With its bullet-shaped head, wings that taper to the finest point, and body that looks like it was designed in a wind tunnel, everything about the Peregrine screams speed.
I (along with a dozen new friends) recently had the opportunity to witness the aerial abilities of the Peregrine in its natural setting. The occasion for this was a raft trip down the Rio Grande through the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Our host was Far Flung Adventures, a rafting company out of Taos that had generously offered to donate a portion of the proceeds of this two day trip to support Audubon’s conservation work in New Mexico. We selected the Ute Mountain reach of the Rio as the location for this adventure specifically because of the abundance of Peregrine Falcons, Great Horned Owls, Golden Eagles, and other raptors that nest on the cliff walls of this impressive river gorge. While our party was made up of individuals with a range of birding abilities, all had an appreciation and love of the natural world. Just the kind of folks you want to spend two days on the river with.
The first morning we witnessed a pair of Great Horned Owls tending their nest, were chased down river by a very territorial and vocal Red-tailed Hawk, and spotted the brilliant flash of Yellow Warblers working their way through the lush green vegetation at river’s edge. But when we rounded a bend in the river and were greeted by an uproarious cloud of frantically swarming Cliff Swallows I knew we were in for a treat.
We immediately started scanning the skyline above the cliffs for the colony’s tormentor and it wasn’t long before we spotted the dark silhouette of the Peregrine. Seemingly a mile away when first spotted, the falcon was streaking through the flock of swallows overhead within a second or two. In its stoop the bird was poised like a downhill skier in a tuck, every muscle engaged in stabilizing the body against the slightest speed dampening falter. After passing no more than 20 yards above us, the falcon was again a blur on the horizon. But the hunt wasn’t over, far out and over the gorge we watched the bird climb, bank, and dive again. In a matter of seconds it closed the distance on a stretch of river that had taken us the better part of the morning to float.
It took a few more fruitless passes at its prey (fast and capable flyers themselves) before the falcon successfully snatched a swallow out of mid-air and triumphantly lit on the edge of the cliff just downstream from us. With its trophy pinned under its talon, the falcon watched as our bright orange rafts bobbed along in the water below him. Under the bird’s curious gaze it became abundantly clear that in this place, at this time, it was the humans below who were ill-adapted to the scene and it was the falcon that had complete mastery over itself and its environment, a feeling both awe-inspiring and humbling.
The second day had its own surprises including otter and beaver sightings, a perched Prairie Falcon, and herds of Elk and Bighorn Sheep. With one mile left to go before the takeout, we received one last gift from the gorge when we watched a Golden Eagle (a species that had thus far alluded us) drop off a meal to its mate and young in a cliff-side nest high above. But all agreed that the highlight of the trip was the show of hunting prowess provided by the falcon the day before.
The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument is a truly spectacular place, one whose expanse, abundance, and wildness force us to confront our own limitations as a species – serving as a reminder that our dominion ought not reach beyond our abilities. These landscapes are the natural home of the falcon, the elk, and the trout, we need to keep it that way.
Thanks to the work of the National Audubon Society, a coalition of conservation partners, and the leadership of our New Mexico Senators Heinrich and Udall, the incredible landscape encompassed by the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument was recently expanded and conserved in perpetuity when the president signed the Natural Resources Management Act this spring. A rare win on the federal level at a time when such wins are hard to come by. Achievements like this make me and the rest of the staff at Audubon New Mexico proud to be part of the Audubon team. We hope you share that feeling with us.
If you’re interested in joining us on our next expedition with Far Flung Adventures check out their website and keep reading our updates. Or if you want to get involved protecting the birds of New Mexico and the places that they depend on please consider donating to Audubon New Mexico, volunteering, or joining your local Audubon Chapter. With your help we can make sure our state remains a place where wild things thrive.
Thank you for your support.