On a recent visit from my friend Wayne, I made a conscious decision to embark on an early morning birding excursion without bringing my camera. Wayne is an avid birder who doesn’t get to wander on the outer beaches of Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge very often so I was keen on making sure he had a good experience. Common practice for birders here is to have good binoculars but especially for small shorebirds to pack a spotting scope on a tripod. We each decided to bring a scope. Though a beautiful early morning we did not have favorable tidal conditions ( a falling tide) forcing us to anchor in fairly deep water before wading out to examine a large mixed flock of shorebirds foraging along the waters edge. The light was mellow and the birds showed well in golden light as they jostled around while feeding aggressively for their next hop in the long flight south.
As we eased our way in shallow water toward the flock we began to scan for the birds that were different hoping to find a rare vagrant. This is a “bird watcher” thing. In this case we were looking at a flock of maybe three hundred Black Bellied Plovers in non breeding plumage with a few dunlins, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones mixed in. The Black bellies’ were a bit drab compared to the dramatic black markings of the breeders we might see heading north in the spring. One particular bird caught our attention and we trained the scopes on it hoping to see the subtle differences that indicate the rare American Golden Plover. This bird species occasionally passes through Cape Cod beaches heading south. At this moment I was just beginning to regret NOT bringing my camera….when the entire flock of birds exploded into the air in flight. The target of our observation was now lost amongst the blizzard of panicked birds. Experienced birders know that this sort of excitement can be caused by the sudden presence of a predator threat so we immediately scanned to see. Within seconds a perfectly silent deadly attacker came streaking in about 6 feet off the beach at 60 miles an hour. “Peregrine!” I yelled. ..very excited but now really regretting I did not have my camera. Wayne corrected me and said ,”Merlin, looks like a female” (NOTE: the female merlin is slightly larger than the male but both falcons are considerably smaller than a peregrine.
What was to happen next are one of those experiences you cannot soon forget. As the streaking falcon came into the panicked flock she quickly picked out one of the tiny dunlins as her target narrowly missing with extended talons on the first strike. Stunned into jaw dropping wonder we watched as the merlin darted and the dunlin flailed as the rest of the flock separated to a safe distance oscillating in erratic flight. In one panicked motion the little dunlin headed directly for us – the two gawking bird watchers standing in knee high water and looking like some kind of cover. Whoosh – the falcon bolted over our heads and swung tightly in pursuit of the poor shorebird who was in the flight of its life and had pivoted back to the beach. With predator precision the merlin climbed up to about 50 feet overhead and then dove into a blistering stoop with talons extended and this time struck the dunlin with such force about three feet above the water that both birds powered into the sea with a massive splash. Unlike ospreys, falcons of this type are not comfortable in water and this maneuver could have been dangerous for lift off – soaking wet is difficult. In this case the dunlin was left stunned and floating in the water while the merlin struggled to attain lift with totally drenched feathers hoping to gain altitude and set up for another strike to retrieve its now helpless stunned prey. At this very moment however, an attentive Greater Black backed Gull who had been carefully observing the melee, now launched from a nearby beach position, crashing into the water and plunged its wide open beak over the still bewildered dunlin, engulfing the hapless shorebird in one gulp! YIKES!
Meanwhile the Merlin, still soaked and having missed the gull’s surgical strike was in a frantic search overhead looking for her prey, flying back and forth , alternately hovering to try to see the meal she had worked so hard to procure. Alas it was not to be. After about 2 or 3 minutes of searching she made her way back to the beach and perched on a piece of driftwood to dry off. Wayne and I looked at each other and mused that with my camera I may have captured one of nature’s great spectacles but we also agreed the odds were better that while trying to follow the battle in a view finder I would more likely have missed the action altogether.
The pictures included here were taken at a different time just to give you a little sense of the actors in this natural drama.