Fabulous Falcons

falconStory and Photos by Richard Ground

FALCONS–the word conjures up romantic images of medieval knights engaged in the noble art of flaconry. There are precious few knights in the Turks & Caicos Islands, but the birds they would have used can be found here, together with others of the same family.

Falcons are not hawks–people tend to lump all birds of prey together–but in fact falcons belong to a quite separate group, although their similar predatory lifestyle means that hawks and falcons look alike. They both have sharp talons for gripping and curved beaks for ripping their prey. But there are differences–falcons have narrow pointed wings, designed for speed and maneuverability, while true hawks have broad wings, designed for soaring.

The only hawk found regularly in the Turks & Caicos Islands is the Osprey, and even it is a bit of an oddity, being the sole member of its genus. Otherwise, most birds of prey that you are likely to encounter are in fact, falcons. This includes the fierce little bird known locally as the Sparrowhawk. Despite the soubriquet, the so-called “Sparrowhawk” is a small falcon, and in North America they are known as the American Kestrel. With their delicate facial markings they are beautiful things. The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was not averse to a high-flown phrase, called the kestrel ” . . . morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon.”

But to come back to earth. Falcons in the Turks & Caicos Islands come in three sizes: small, medium and large. The small model is the Sparrowhawk, and it is a just a scaled down version of its larger cousins. Apart from the Osprey, it is the only bird of prey resident year round. However in winter, it is joined by the other two models: the medium-sized Merlin and the large Peregrine Falcon. In Jamaica this size gradient, and the birds’ favourite prey, is mirrored in their local names: “Pigeon Hawk” for the Merlin and “Duck Hawk” for the Peregrine Falcon.

sphawkEach has a very different lifestyle. The Sparrowhawks make a living catching small animals and birds. Their great favourite is mice. They can often be seen hovering while they search for prey, or sitting watchfully on a high branch or wire, waiting to pounce. In the Dominican Republic and Cuba they are called “Cern’calo,” which is a contraction of “Tsar Nicholas,” because they are so high and mighty. It is an apt nickname, for they literally rule the roost, keeping a tight reign over everything that moves–or at least everything smaller than themselves. It is probably because of them that the little birds–the warblers and bananaquits–are so shy and retiring, preferring to skulk in the safety of dense bushes rather than flitting about in the open. This is very different from how they behave in other islands where the Sparrowhawks are not so dominant.

Merlins, on the other hand, are fast fliers, and they hunt down other birds in high-speed aerial chases. They can often be seen perched beside ponds and lagoons where there are a lot of waterbirds, keeping a watch for the slow or the weak. They like to test other birds, and will constantly swoop low over the pond, just to try out the residents. Most birds know to sit tight–ducks literally duck, grebes and coots dive–but if any inexperienced bird were to make the mistake of taking to the wing, the Merlin would have it.

Peregrines are the traditional birds of falconry. They are famous for their aerial pounce, swooping down at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour on flocks of flying birds. This spectacular maneuver is called a stoop, and at the start of it the Peregrine builds up its tremendous speed by pumping its wings to force it into the dive. The effect is deadly–the impact alone usually kills the victim outright. Peregrines, like Merlins, haunt open ponds and coastal lagoons, where there is a good supply of shorebirds and little cover for the prey. They are notorious wanderers–indeed they tend to “peregrinate” –and during the winter they rarely stay long in one place, preferring to roam from island to island.

merlinSparrowhawks are a common feature of the landscape of the Turks & Caicos Islands, and hard to miss. Merlins are not so easy to find, although if you spend long enough by a suitable pond during the winter months the odds are that one will come by to give the resident birds a hard time. Peregrines are still distinctly uncommon–during the 1950s and 1960s they were extirpated from the Eastern Seaboard by the overuse of DDT, and had to be re-introduced. Since then they have made a good comeback, and have recently been removed from the endangered list, but they remain rare and an exciting find. A good place to see them is the southern part of Grand Turk, which presents a landscape of lagoons and salinas with a few tall trees to serve as look-outs, and low cliffs for roosts. There were at least two different birds in that area over Christmas 1999, while a third turned up at North Wells in March 2000.

Sometimes Peregrines like to stand on the shore of a pond while checking out the inhabitants for a possible meal. In November last year I was photographing a Reddish Egret in a pond near the Hawk’s Nest Salina on Grand Turk’s southern end. It was lurching around in a rather drunken fashion, as they do, chasing small fish. Suddenly it froze, as did a flock of sandpipers that had been foraging along the water’s edge. They all stared in the same direction, petrified, and when I followed their gaze I saw a Peregrine standing opposite me on the far shore, watching intently. It stayed for several minutes (too far away to photograph) before going off to harass someone else.

A similar thing happened at Christmastime. I had been chasing Peregrines up and down for days–they would never let me get close, flying off the instant I moved towards them. Then one morning I was sitting by South Wells. At that time the area was still flooded with fresh water after the near passage of a couple of hurricanes in the early fall, and it had become the home of a large flock of mixed water birds: coots, pied-billed grebes and several species of duck had all taken up residence there. I was quietly watching them dabbling around, when suddenly they turned as one to stare accusingly at me, as if I had committed some dreadful avian faux pas. It took me several minutes to realise that a Peregrine had come to sit on the wall of a nearby well. This time I did get its picture.

Richard Ground is the Chief Justice of the Turks & Caicos Islands. He has a life-long interest in wildlife and a more recent interest in wildlife photography. Richard and his wife, Dace, have published a book of wildlife photographs to benefit the Cayman National Trust and photos from his stint in Bermuda have appeared in various magazines.

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