Vernal Equinox 03/20/08

We were driving up the road to the trail head around 7:45 am when off the left bank of the road leapt a coyote. Its jump took it 3/4 of the way across the road and in one more stride, it disappeared into the brush on the right. A split second of agility, strength, grace. A very nice start to mark the vernal equinox.

We parked and gathered our gear (scope, tripod, camera, water, snacks) and headed out. The walk to the possible peregrine scrape is 2.1 miles. It was much less windy than on Sunday, a little warmer, sunny, perfect for a long hike with gear.

We arrived at our destination (stopping a few times along the way to view the landscape and scan the rocks and trees for birds). We heard turkeys but didn’t see any. We heard a quail but didn’t see it. We noticed several raptors still sitting in trees and on rocks getting warmed.
Around 9 am, we got to the area that we had previously noted to have whitewash on the rocks, presumably from raptors sitting guarding a nest site. There were no changes from our earlier visit—no more whitewash, no peregrines in site.

As we settled there with our scopes for water and a snack, up popped a falcon. It landed on the top of the rock outcropping that we had been concentrating on. After a couple of minutes, we ID’d it as a prairie falcon. Too early in the year for a juvenile peregrine and too light on the underside. This bird had light brown malar stripes, was on the small side, had a white superciliar stripe across the back of its head. It stayed only a short time, then disappeared behind the rock outcropping.

We stayed and debated whether to stay longer and settle in or to move to the end of the trail and down the utility access road 1/2 mile further on that we had previously noted headed to the right. We hoped to get to a point where we could see the back side of that outcropping so we moved on. We did manage to find a high rock and climbed up. We then moved out behind the rocky area to get a better view. From there we could see the caves that we thought possible scrape sites but we had a narrow view and felt we needed a wider view of the landscape.

Again, a stop for snacks, water, scoping another rocky outcropping. Lots of caves, lots of whitewash, no sitting peregrines, nothing to indicate current use.

We moved back to our previous location and again a prairie falcon (PRFA) pops up, this time chasing off a raven. The PRFA kept after the raven, eventually making contact. The raven spiraled down, landing in a tree, ‘gronking’ a couple of times. The PRFA headed back to its rock. The raven sat for awhile, then took to the air with a wobbly flight.

The PRFA again settled on the rock, engaging a redtail in a chase, going back to look-out position.

We moved back down the trail, again hoping to get a view of the back of the outcropping, this time moving to the right in the direction of the trailhead. A 1/4 mile later a merlin flew over out heads and we watched as it flew over the prairie falcon with no resulting encounter. Another 1/4 mile down and we set up scopes with a good view of the backside o fthe outcropping. Suddenly there were 3 falcons in the air; two prairies and one peregrine. Kanit and Cheryl followed the peregrine while I stayed on the prairies. The PRFA’s settle on their rock while the peregrine continued on south out of sight. Kanit had noted the general area where one prairie had come out of the rocky area.

By this time, the air was warmer and we were getting heat waves interfering with a clear view of the falcons. The larger of the two stayed on the rock and the other had disappeared. It was too difficult to get a clear view with the distance and the heat waves so we climbed that 1/2 mile back up the hill to get a better view, just to confirm ID. The bird was still sitting. It was a larger prairie, overall darker with wider, darker malar stripes and not such a prominent white stripe on the back of the head. Clearly a different bird from previously, and we ID’d it as the female. By the actions (one bird out most of the time; two out to roust the peregrine; the smaller bird disappearing and the larger sitting), we decided we were watching hard incubation.

Altogether we saw one or both of this pair chase out several ravens, two redtails, one peregrine got an escort, one merlin zipped through. The many turkey vultures seems to have a territory passport that allowed free passage as they were not chased away.

At 2 pm we were back at the car and headed to Monitoring Site #1 where I’d confirmed the pair of peregrines two days before.

No sightings, no cakking, no one in the cave where I’d seen the female looking so comfortable.

Again, people were climbing on the cliff face. This time two people were directly over the cave opening, jumping up and down, waving their arms and shouting. If any peregrines had been in the area, they no longer were around. This seems to be a regular late afternoon event, with people climbing up. Not likely to be successful nesting site.

We were in the field for 10 1/2 hours, walked nearly nine miles toting gear.  By the end of the day we were too tired to talk in full sentences but it was a magical first day of spring, starting with coyote, finding an unexpected prairie falcon nest site, and a disappointingly empty peregrine territory.

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