A Falcon’s Journey

islandgirl.jpg Thanks to Marie, who posted the link:

The online diversion of the day is the Falcon Research Group, an independent raptor study center in Washington state. The group has satellite-tagged and tracked peregrine falcons that migrate over very long distances. Right now, they’re watching a falcon they’ve named Island Girl, who is in the midst of a journey from Baffin Island, northeast of Hudson Bay, to southern Chile (here’s the map of the migration so far). She left Baffin Island on September 20 and last night apparently crossed Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. If she was a straight-line flyer, and she’s not, she would have covered 2,600 miles in 11 days. One of her stops this past week was apparently atop the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

The research group blogs the migration here: Southern Cross Peregine Project. The account of the bird’s journey, informed by both experience with her life history, peregrine biology, and GPS data from a mini-backpack the bird is carrying, is both fascinating and sort of gripping. For instance: This is the third season the project has tracked the bird south. One post notes she has begun the migration inside a 24-hour window on September 20-21 each time (her northward migrations are similarly precise, occurring around April 12). Of the challenges peregrines face as they cover a vast swath of territory, the blog says:

Peregrines (and other long distance migrant hawks) can make a living catching their prey over a wide range of habitats. They must be able to do so if they are migrationg across such varied territory as the Arctic tundra, the Canadian boreal forest, the farmlands of the Mid-West, cities large and small, the sub-tropical regions of Mexico, the tropics of Central and South America, the intense Atacama Desert and the pine forests of southern Chile.

They must be adaptable enough to survive in each of these situations. They must have a flexible approach to hunting in different situations. They must be able to recognize, hunt and catch new prey species (do peregrines eat toucans?) and avoid all of the ever-present mortality sources.

Are these “slow migrant” peregrines that we have discovered during this study taking their time so that they can become familiar with these habitats and how to hunt them? Are they “familiarizing” themselves with their migratory route and what they can find there? Is this advantageous to them?

The complexity of peregrine migratory behavior is both deeply impressive and humbling. What a remarkable organism to fit into all of this and flourish.

Where’s Island Girl now? When last heard from, she was headed out over the Gulf of Mexico southwest of New Orleans. As the blog notes, the falcon may “attempt to fly across the entire Gulf of Mexico. It has been done by other satellite tagged peregrines in the past. However, taking this route means committing to the very exposed crossing of 500 miles across open water to Yucatan. Some tagged raptors have disappeared on this crossing. … If Island Girl does go and if she has a good tail wind, she is capable of making it. Keep in mind that there are also a lot of oil platforms out there to rest on and we know that peregrines show up on them during the fall migration fairly frequently. There are also lots of ships in the Gulf so she may have assistance there if she gets into trouble with a headwind.”

Six thousand miles to home. Go, bird, go.

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