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Drama in the Skies

by Clay Sutton

We were 22 strong, participants plus leaders, learning together on the American Birding Association/Institute for Field Ornithology's Migration Workshop.

We went in search of Hudsonian Godwits, Marbled Godwits, and a pair of American Avocet, but what we ended up seeing was high drama in the skies.

There had been five Hudsonian Godwits, two Marbled Godwits, and two American Avocets reported at Bivalve on Cumberland County's Delaware Bayshore in the waning days of October. These were all special birds, unusual and all late on their southbound migration. One young godwit, on his first journey south, was destined never to make it.

Piling out of the vans at Bivalve, we scanned and scanned. There were no godwits in view, but thousands upon thousands of Dunlin, with mixed-in Black-bellied Plover, yellowlegs, dowitcher, and even a "Gray Knot" (winter plumaged Red Knot). There were no godwits to be seen, but it was a needle in a very pleasant haystack -- one which included a perched, watching, waiting Bald Eagle.

Bedlam. Pandemonium among the birds announced the arrival of the unseen Peregrine. The swirling, splitting, turning shorebirds washed over us, coming and going like crashing then receding waves. For a couple of minutes we couldn't find the inevitable Peregrine, but then the shorebirds parted like a curtain, to reveal a young Peregrine in pursuit, in a life or death tailchase of a large shorebird.

I rapidly computed size, shape, probability, and yelled, "Peregrine chasing a Greater Yellowlegs." It actually took about ten seconds before I realized the black tail and black underwings did not compute for yellowlegs.

"Peregrine chasing a Hudsonian Godwit," I screamed. Perhaps the Peregrine had singled the godwit out of the flock because it was different, or maybe just last to flush. Maybe this hawk was a godwit "specialist" on the high arctic breeding grounds, surprised to find one in New Jersey. Whatever reason, it was now just a heartbeat behind the godwit, ten feet and gaining, powering over the mudflat in a manner which could define for Webster, "hot pursuit."

The chase went on for several minutes, low, obscured at times by the panicked, swirling Dunlin and other shorebirds. Our group rooted for the Hudsonian Godwit, an underdog if there ever was one. Why, someone in the group despaired, did it have to single the godwit out of the thousands of more common shorebirds?

The predator and chosen prey circled, came, went, came back again. The godwit was pulling ahead, gaining ground on the Peregrine very slowly, and the crowd cheered, urging it on. Yet, even though still chasing (at God knows what speed), the Peregrine was slowly gaining height, behind but now above the fleeing godwit, altitude it could convert to speed in an angled, pumping stoop.

I had seen this technique before with Merlins chasing Dunlin, and with "duck hawks" (Peregrines) pursuing scattering teal. I cautioned our group that the opening distance would not guarantee the godwit's escape.

Predator and prey disappeared to the west, and we thought we would never know the outcome, yet a few minutes later they flashed by us again, the relentless Peregrine now just feet behind. A second juvenile Peregrine, equally dark and foreboding, joined the chase.

As the Hudsonian Godwit dodged the second, the first Peregrine opportunistically and instantly closed the gap and took the gallant godwit from the October sky. Our last view was of the struggling shorebird raising its neck, the long upcurved bill silhouetted in the air.

Then the mantling Peregrine bit, severing the spinal cord with its notched beak. The end was as quick as the chase was long, the death of a godwit. I swear I felt a chill, fleeting yet distinct.

We were stunned by what we had witnessed, the drama of the pursuit, the finality of the end. But it wasn't over yet. The second Peregrine now came in and dove on the mantling first bird, then dashed in and snatched the limp godwit away. Now the Peregrines chased each other in circles over the mudflat, one ultimately won and descended with the prey to feed, finally.

All this time the eagle had watched, waiting, and I quietly said to the enthralled group, "Now the eagle will come and take the godwit."

And so it was, the subadult Bald Eagle flapped slowly but resolutely in and flushed the Peregrine from the carcass, the eagle clearly the "top dog" here. As the eagle carried off the prize, another chase ensued and the wrathful Peregrine chased and dove on the eagle for the next ten minutes. In the end though, the eagle fed, ripping off feathers that floated over the now quiet mudflat like milkweed's silken parachutes and seeds float over a meadow.

If a godwit falls on the mudflat, does anybody hear? In twenty years of leading birding groups and tours, I have never seen a group so simultaneously palpably excited yet at the same time almost in shock. Try to imagine speechless yet talking all at the same time. Many people were visibly breathless, almost panting, wrung out by this sobering drama. The empathy was so great, it was as if we had lived it too. In a way we had, rooting for the godwit, yet begrudgingly and admiringly cheering for the Peregrine's prowess.

You know it is the way of nature, but it is hard to dispassionately watch. It's hard not to watch too.

I remembered a fleeting yet vivid thought during the chase. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was my optics. Maybe my eyes. But, in thirty years of watching Peregrines, of the thousands I've seen, I have never seen a juvenile Peregrine, indeed both Peregrines, appear so dark, inexplicably dark black, as if they were the Lucifer Peregrines, evil incarnate.

It was as if some foreboding, evil force had suddenly possessed them. Good versus evil, godwit versus malevolent Peregrine. And, as often happens, evil prevailed.

For all my love of Peregrines, for a moment the bird had become a demon, the death of the godwit gut-wrenching, the horror heartfelt. I imagined the chill I had felt coming from the sun momentarily flickering, like a candle in the wind, as the life drained from the godwit, then recatching to burn brightly again.

It is nature, it is drama. For Peregrines. it is nothing more than dinner. But it is still death, at the same time difficult to witness yet compelling to watch.

Now at Bivalve the more salient side of nature had returned, as if the dark side of nature had retreated back to the underworld.

Shorebirds fed, roosted, slept. We found two other Hudsonian Godwits, two Marbled Godwits, and a lovely pair of American Avocets. After watching them feed, sometimes at pointblank range, the rising tide forced them and the thousands of other shorebirds to the highest, driest part of the mudflat, their high tide roost.

As we left, the godwits slept the high tide away, seemingly content. Order had returned, and for now the previous turmoil receded to our and maybe the shorebirds' memory. I was surprised, yet pleased to find I liked Peregrines again. They had mercifully disappeared, yet would return. All these shorebirds, all this food would draw Peregrines back again and again -- predators and prey in nature's way. The big eagle nonchalantly preened. The godwit didn't even make for half a full crop.

I wondered then if godwits dream, dream of the life-giving tundra, or maybe dream of the unfinished journey ahead, of bountiful low tides stretching before them to the rich coasts of southern Argentina. If they dream of black Peregrines, I hope it is of the spirited chase, and not of its end.

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.


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