It’s an overcast day in Solano Beach, Southern California, and a thrilling scene is unfolding in the surf. A predator that rules the skies is hunting its prey, using its superior strength and speed to overcome its victim. Nothing out of the ordinary? Well, what is extraordinary is this award-winning series of photos by wildlife photographer Will James Sooter of www.sharpeyesonline.com. The awesome image sequence documents, in stunning detail, a peregrine falcon dramatically pursuing and capturing a willet.
The female peregrine falcon is a picture of focus and intent as she zeroes in on her target. Moments before this shot was taken, the bird of prey purposely collided with the shorebird, knocking it out of the air and into the sea. “I was totally enthralled as I watched her knock this willet out of the sky with her intelligence, speed, power and coordination,” wrote Sooter on his Flickr page. Normally, following such a blow, peregrine falcons turn and snatch their prey right out of the air – but not this time.
In this shot, the peregrine makes a pass of the willet and topples it over while trying to grab it out of the ocean. Peregrine falcons are fierce and effective predators. After sighting their prey, which usually consists of smaller birds or bats, they swoop down at speeds sometimes exceeding 200 mph (320 km/h). In fact, this incredible attack speed makes peregrine falcons the fastest moving animals on the planet. Even so, here the willet stays in the water and out of trouble – if only for a moment.
Here, the falcon tries to pick up the willet but misses once more. Female peregrines are larger than their male counterparts – in some cases by as much as 30 percent. Both sexes, however, share the same beautiful and distinctive markings: white- to rust-colored undersides lined with thin, dark bands; barred bluish black or gray wings; and a black-tipped tail with a white strip towards the very end. In contrast, their feet and the base of their bills are bright yellow.
Again the peregrine tries to snare its prey and fails. Willets – a type of sandpiper – are by no means small birds themselves. They come in two seasonal colors: mottled brown breeding plumage (which this one appears to have), and plain gray winter plumage. Unfortunately for this willet, if it hasn’t bred already, it missed its chance.
In this dramatic shot, the willet is sent tumbling by the peregrine, which appears to be clutching some feathers in her left claw. Peregrine falcons often live in coastal areas to satisfy their taste for shorebirds, but they are found in a wide variety of other environments as well. In fact, you can find them on every continent excluding Antarctica. They even call urban areas home, so it’s not surprising that they’re among the most prevalent raptors in the world.
Next, the falcon makes one of its seemingly endless attempts to pick up the willet. So far, the smaller bird seems to have been able to avoid the raptor by diving under the waves, but it looks to be moving closer and closer to the shore. When they’re not eating willets, peregrines hunt birds such as waterfowl, songbirds, pigeons, doves, and even smaller falcons. It’s unusual for them to hunt land mammals, and if they do it’s only smaller animals like mice, squirrels, rats and hares.
You have to hand it to this persistent falcon; she doesn’t give up easily. In this shot, she lines up the floundering willet. Surely there can be no escape this time, especially since the waves have brought it towards the beach, where it cannot hope to duck under the water to escape.
The falcon finally has her prey. She clutches the willet tightly in those impressive-looking claws, while her unlucky victim calls out in vain. Both peregrine falcons and willets were once endangered birds in the U.S. Peregrines fell victim to the pesticide DDT, which was used particularly heavily in the 1960s. The chemical prevented the peregrines’ eggs from forming shells thick enough to secure the survival of an incubating baby falcon. Fortunately, DDT usage was heavily restricted in 1972, and the birds have since recovered, although they are still threatened in Ohio.
With her victim securely in her talons, the falcon heads for a perch to begin her meal. Time is running out for this willet – but what of the species more generally? Willets were hunted excessively during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which resulted in a steep drop in their numbers. However, willet hunting was banned in 1918, and the birds’ numbers began to increase. Today, they face another threat: the destruction of their habitat, owing to coastal development and wetlands and grasslands being altered for agricultural use.
The falcon lands with her prey and begins to drag it up the cliff. She’s not the only one with a taste for willet either. In 1871 famed French ornithologist and painter John James Audubon wrote that willets “grow rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford excellent food.” No wonder they were hunted so much.
It’s the end of the line for this willet, as the falcon makes use of her beak to snap the bird’s spinal cord. In fact, the upper part of the peregrine’s beak is notched specifically for this purpose. Although this shorebird never stood a chance, willets are not completely docile, and they will vociferously protect their young and their territory – even mobbing some intruders. Willets are also known to pretend that they’re injured in order to draw predators away from their eggs or nesting young.
Now the willet’s wings seem spread in resignation as the peregrine delivers the killer blow. While fresh willet is clearly on this falcon’s menu, willets themselves feed on small snails, insects and worms, which they dig up with their narrow and sensitive beaks. They hunt along shorelines and mudflats, where they also catch small crabs.
The peregrine picks up the dead willet and sets off to pluck her meal. Yes, before they eat, peregrine falcons prefer to pluck the feathers from their victims. If they nest on the ground, peregrines can themselves fall prey to predators, such as wolves and bears. They have a high mortality rate, but if they manage to survive the early threats, they can live for as long as 15 years.
Now comes the reward for all that hard work. This story hasn’t ended well for the willet, but both birds have played their part in nature’s cycle of life. Thank you to Will James Sooter for sharing these amazing photographs with us.