Some unusual visitors to the Golden Isles took up residence along the beaches recently, as rarely seen peregrine falcons blew in from the ocean.
They came in numbers birders and wildlife biologists said they have never seen previously.
“When we had that really strong northeast gale blowing for almost a week, we just had some really spectacular numbers — several different estimates ranging at over 160 peregrines on a single day, coming through,” said Tim Keyes, state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. “It’s most likely birds which typically would be migrating well offshore. Falcons are one of the few birds of prey that don’t mind migrating over large bodies of water. Most of our birds of prey catch thermals, so they need to basically be over land so they can catch the warm rising air masses.”
Use of the pesticide DDT in the past effectively pushed peregrines off the East Coast, and even now they are known to roost in the Florida Keys. They skirt the edge of the Southeast during migratory flights. They are even rarer further inland. Rolf Gubler, a National Park Service biologist who heads up the Shenandoah National Park reintroduction program for the falcons, said in a Oct. 8 story in Bay Journal that essentially, “DDT erased the board” regarding peregine populations.
In 2015, rock climbers at Tallulah Gorge found the first natural peregrine nest in Georgia in 80 years. Those that do spend a significant number of time in the state roost on Atlanta office buildings, feeding on creatures like pigeons and bats.
National Geographic notes some are known to travel more than 15,000 miles in one year.
“Typically, October is our peak month for migrating falcons and other raptors as well, but it’s always a good month to catch these raptors migrating south along our coast,” Keyes said. “Many of them breed across the Arctic and the northern half of the continent. So, their migration is largely timed with shorebird migration — they’re predators on them. So, it’s always a good time of year, and typically on a great day you might see 10 peregrine falcons and a couple merlins coming through.”
Keyes said that a number of the birds appeared to be fairly young, and were conducting their famous fast, steep dives on other birds like teenage boys with Ferraris.
“They were harassing herons and spoonbills and chasing shorebirds,” Keyes said. “But, I’ve been on the coast close to 10 years, and hadn’t seen anything close to this. There’s other people who birded regularly on the coast 50 years and have just not seen anything like this.”