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Backyard Files: built for speed

By Stephen Press

Hometown Weekly Editor

A couple weeks ago, as I arrived at the basketball courts at the crack of dawn (it’s a far less masochistic routine than it sounds), I received quite an interesting welcome.

A little background. The courts I frequent are outdoors, and situated in a quiet locale with abundant open space. Particularly at sunrise, when human presence is nonexistent, it transforms the fields and parking lot into an ideal habitat for a number of local birds. The ancillary benefit of my 6:30 a.m. shoot-arounds (outside of a marginally improved field-goal percentage on midrange set shots) is that I am frequently accompanied by avians of various varieties, including killdeer that dramatically swoop in front of me as I line up three-pointers, Eastern bluebirds that watch like courtside spectators from the top of a chain-link fence, and more geese than I could ever hope to see.

None of those species are the subjects of this article.

On this particular morning, as I took my first shots of the day, I noticed a flock of European starlings dramatically dancing in the early light. In itself, this would usually be no surprise; starling flocks are often around, and I’ve grown used to admiring them. What made this one especially notable was that it seemed a bit more agitated than I would typically expect. The shape of the flock was distorting rapidly, and rather closely to the ground.

It was then that I spotted the cause of the agitation: a bird of prey, smaller than the red-tailed hawks and broad-winged hawks I’m used to seeing, was pursuing the flock closely. It was of a slimmer and sleeker profile than those beefier hawks, with pointed wings folded back aerodynamically in a manner I associate more with swallows and swifts than I do with New England’s birds of prey. It cut through the air with great ease as it whipped the starlings into a frenzy.

I started mentally making guesses as to what it could be before, stumped and a little frustrated, I said aloud: “Well, you’re impressive. I wish I could tell what you were.”

As though the bird could hear my inquiry, it departed from the starlings, made a wide loop, descended to about ten or fifteen feet in the air, and whipped by the entrance to the basketball courts, where I was standing. Its close approach revealed what appeared to be mutton-chop sideburns on its face, precipitating an immediate moment of realization. It had told me all I needed to know with its brief swoop — this bird, which was now diverting its attention to some nesting geese in another field, was a peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on the planet.

“At least,” I laughed to myself, “there will be one explosive athlete at the courts this morning.”

I’ve written about birds of prey before, and I observe them all the time. This, however, was the first time I could recall seeing a peregrine falcon in the wild. This is despite the fact that the birds are quite literally everywhere, including New York City, where I spent much of my twenties. 

Why had it taken this long? It’s not as if I hadn’t been looking.

Well, firstly, suggesting the falcons are abundant is a bit misleading. The species was, until fairly recently, on the brink. Here in Massachusetts, they had effectively disappeared. The culprit was DDT, a pesticide exposed in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which caused the peregrine’s eggs to break open before they were ready to hatch. Through the middle of the twentieth century until DDT’s banning in 1972, the population suffered dramatically. It was only through extensive conservation programs that the birds’ numbers recovered. That has to be part of the reason I waited until middle age to see one in the wild.

Another reason might come down to the way the peregrines hunt. The falcons often ambush their prey from above like fighter pilots, striking in dramatic dives from the same angle as the sun. The dives themselves take the birds to over 240 MPH. While very impressive, none of these circumstances are especially favorable for human observation.

Yet another reason might be that I don’t typically frequent areas that would readily host falcon nesting sites. This being southern Massachusetts, crags and peaks aren’t exactly everywhere, nor are the sort of monolithic man-made structures that attract the birds en masse for nesting.

Looking back, I still feel a little lucky to have seen this particular individual when, and where, I saw it. I haven’t seen it since.

So, where does a Hometown Weekly reader seek their own encounter with a peregrine falcon? It comes down to habitat. In the wild, the falcons once preferred elevated rocky cliffs as nesting sites. They could (and still can) be found on some of the state’s more notable peaks. In the modern era, they have also taken to adopting man-made structures for the same purpose: bridges and tall buildings make for ideal perches for the birds and their offspring. Were I a peregrine falcon, I might cast my housing aspirations on Needham’s Echo Bridge, or perhaps some of the rocky outcroppings around Medfield’s Noon Hill.

I might also suggest looking where prey species congregate. Anywhere one can find flocks of starlings or pigeons is a good bet. Local athletic fields aren’t a bad place to start, especially when they abut wooded areas. Given their proximity to Pine Hill and Broadmoor, for example, Sherborn’s Jameson Fields might fit the bill. The other benefit of heading to athletic complexes is that while you might not end up spotting a falcon, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll spot other birds that will entertain you. The abundance of these birds, I suspect, is what brought “my” falcon out on that morning, so far from places I would consider prototypical nesting sites.

I watched the peregrine for a few minutes, wide-eyed. It did not succeed in its various attempts to secure its breakfast, as impressive as they were.

I, in turn, returned to the court, where I experienced similar levels of success with my jump-shot.

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