This is Why I Bird
by Kris Purdy

This is an e-mail sent to the Birdnet on  26 Jan 2003 by  Kris Purdy.  The photos are by local photographers who have sent the picture into the Utah Birds website.

Every once in a while I have a birding experience so remarkable, so awe-inspiring, so wonderful, it reminds me of why I'm a birder. I had one such experience today.

I left the house without a clear destination, and found myself headed up Ogden Canyon with the loosely formed idea that I would visit the North Arm of Pineview Reservoir. Speeding along Highway 158 in bright sunlight, I passed a telephone pole at 787 Eden Highway that was obviously ornamented with a light-colored raptor on top. The bird warranted another look. I
made the obligatory birder's U-turn farther north at a turnout; another south of the pole, and pulled off the road at a crazy easterly-tilt down an embankment about 150 feet from my quarry.

Photo by Jack Binch

What a thrill at first sight. I had found a prairie falcon at its dinner table. The bird hunkered over its catch and obliged me with a complete demonstration of falcon feeding behavoir. Its now-red and meaty looking meal securely pinned with its feet, the falcon methodically stripped, plucked, and tugged hunks of meat and swallowed them with a gulp-gulp-gulp. The bird looked ravenous.

Each time it dipped for another strip, the flat top of its head
appeared to me like a lovely, pale brown oval. The brown wings and back were a trim, streamlined cape. Its mustaches appeared a little darker brown and very narrow, and gave way behind to white cheeks, and below in a white creamy breast that extended far down into its belly. I noticed the bird had the appearance of a spotted brown necklace low over the shoulders, and open where the creamy neck became the breast. I marveled at how heavily feathered its "knickers" were, and how its tawny brown shoulders looked trimmed with a clean white strip along their leading edges. Its primaries appeared sharply pointed and the tips were crossed much of the time the bird dipped to feed.

After the falcon consumed the meaty portion of the meal, it began to pluck feathers and discard them to float lazily down to the snow below. Based on the size of the prey and the time the falcon took to consume it, I speculated the unfortunate victim was a jay-sized bird or perhaps a robin. The tufts of downy-looking feathers looked slate-gray. Later, I saw lighter gray primaries spinning down like a maple tree's helicopters.

Photo by Margaret T. Sanchez

The falcon finished its feeding and backed around the top of the pole looking for more. Then it was still, looking uncharacteristically unkempt with a great blob of downy gray feathers on its beak. A few swipes across the flat pole top didn't dislodge the evidence of the meal it had just consumed with such gusto. Then, up came the great yellow foot, alternately scraping and scratching. The falcon dislodged the feathers after a few tries and restored its foreboding and regal appearance.

I'm sure at least 20 minutes had passed since the moment I pulled off the road to watch the dining drama. But I waited still, because I wanted to see one more thing...the diagnostic mark of the dark axillaries. I didn't know if the falcon would preen and groom following its meal, or find a quieter perch absent the highway. I didn't have long to wait. It gave a great shake and ruffled its feathers all over, tantalizing me with a slight lift of its wings. And then, it flew. The dark axillaries flashed at me repeatedly as the bird headed east in a beeline across Pineview Reservoir. I watched until I lost it in the brown mountains that form the cradle around Huntsville.

I'm a birder for moments like watch this beautiful raptor rip and tear and strip apart a meal against the backdrop of white snow, blue sky, and brown mountains. For me, this is entertainment in its finest form.

Kris Purdy