Sunday, January 25, 2015

Battle of the Predators

"This kind of stuff only happens in Africa," I told Beth, my daughter Rebecca, and her partner Leo when it was all over. But we weren't in Africa.

We, together with a group of lucky friends and fellow birders, had just witnessed something truly remarkable at the end of Mott's Creek Road in Atlantic County, NJ.  This site overlooks the Mott's/Mullica wilderness of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (it's officially known as the Brigantine Wilderness, which also includes Holgate and Little Beach Island).

Shortly after we got to Mott's Creek, at about 4:15 p.m., a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk flew past at close range and perched for a time nearby.  The bird was missing a large patch of flight feathers in its left wing, marking it as a bird that has been seen there in recent days by other birders.  Meanwhile, a Short-eared Owl hunted over the marsh with a few Northern Harriers, a typical scene at Mott's Creek.  The marsh here is pristine, un-ditched, and apparently rich in meadow voles and other prey, and is arguably the best place in coastal NJ to see these species.

The dark Rough-leg flew off, and we were enjoying the other birds when a flock of American Black Ducks flushed - and an adult Peregrine Falcon rocketed across the marsh, HIT ONE IN THE AIR AND BROUGHT IT THE MARSH.  This was startling, even for an awesome predator that used to be known as the "Duck Hawk." American Black Ducks are big birds, weighing 41 ounces to the Peregrine's 25 ounces (these are average weights as published in the Sibley guide), so this successful act of predation was a feat. But after a brief struggle on the marsh, the deed was done and the Peregrine began feeding. . .until the dark Rough-legged Hawk reappeared, pumping over to the Peregrine and stooping on it, DRIVING IT OFF ITS PREY.  The Peregrine responded by making repeated acrobatic strafing flights at the hawk, shrieking in outrage.  Several times the hawk tipped over on its back, thrusting its talons upward at the diving falcon. 

Crazy, but wait, there's more.  An adult Bald Eagle appeared, and for a time the Peregrine diverted its attention to the eagle before the falcon took a nearby perch to sulk.  Then a harrier glided over the rough-leg, which was now feeding on the duck, and the harrier thought about taking a stab at the hawk, thought better of it, and simply landed on the marsh nearby.  Next an adult Great Black-backed Gull checked out the hawk, made the same decision, and perched on the marsh opposite the harrier.  The harrier and the gull reminded me of hyenas waiting near a lion kill on the Serengeti.

At this point most of the other birders had gone, and it was nearing dark, but there was one more act to the play.  A light morph Rough-legged Hawk flew in low over the marsh, stooped briefly on the dark one, then it too thought better of it and flew onward.  The marsh quieted down, even the Short-eared owls went to bed, and we departed.

[Unfortunately, I have no photos of this amazing evening, since my camera is back to Nikon AGAIN (and you may be seeing one p.o.'d blog here in the near future if they don't fix it right this time), though the truth is the events were too far off and it was a little dark for good photos - but not for great views with scope and binoculars.]

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