On a recent ski, I was daydreaming for a moment or two, just staring down at the snow. I glanced up for a moment to see a raptor flying away from a dead snag. It didn’t fly far and landed in another dead standing tree about a hundred meters away. Through my binoculars, I saw an adult peregrine falcon staring back at me.
Moving slightly farther on my skis, I spooked a second peregrine. This one though flushed from the ground and when I looked toward its place of origin, I saw a pile of feathers. The falcons had been eating breakfast.
Curiosity compelled me to investigate the kill. I skied over to the bird on the snow. It was a duck, a bufflehead to be specific. This duck hadn’t been dead long. Blood had yet to coagulate and the falcons had only eaten parts of the back and most of the neck.
Buffleheads are diving ducks that feed mostly on aquatic insects in freshwater environments. The Stehekin River was not far away from the scene, but the river at the location, just a mile or so downstream of High Bridge, is too small to meet the habitat requirements of this species. Buffleheads prefer deeper, more open water found on ponds, lakes, coastlines, and larger rivers.
What might the bufflehead be doing so far upriver? I suppose it could’ve been in the water, but peregrine falcons are adept aerial hunters. Buffleheads are strong flyers, yet peregrines, as the fastest animal in the world, could have overtaken the bufflehead in a spectacular stoop, a swift dive when they strike and kill the bird in the air. The bufflehead might’ve been flying up valley, migrating to a different area, when it met its demise. The cliffs above the river valley in this location would be ideal places for peregrines to perch and hunt birds from.
After a moment or two, I left the falcons to their meal after watching them perch in the trees. When I returned later in the afternoon on my way home, I revisited the scene and found only a smattering of downy feathers and blood stains on the snow.
This was a bad morning for the bufflehead, but a good one for the falcons.