On the last day of the big golf tournament in January, I took Carly up to Torrey Pines gliderport. It was too windy for me to practice, but there was a big crowd of spectators, and quite a few of the more advanced fliers in the air. I normally only let her fly a few times around the fields on top, in case she draws the attention of any falcons. She screams like a banshee when she’s flying. Not exactly discreet, and I worry that it will sound threatening if falcons are on a nest on the cliffs below. Shanti, the Harris Hawk flown by paraglider Kurt Sellinger, has been chased by Peregrines before when she is up in the air with him. None have ever shown up when Carly is out. Until this day.
It was her first flight, and she was quite rambunctious in the strong wind. She’d been up less than a minute, and — according to a pilot who was up between 500-1000 ft at the time — a Peregrine was circling at that height and suddenly took a dive at her. It was very fortunate he didn’t hit the target on his first try. He chased her several laps around the gliderport field and over the canyons. She tried to get down to me a couple times, but couldn’t shake him off her tail so she aborted at the last second. I lost sight of her when she flew behind a hill where some hangliders were parked, and ran in that direction. Men were yelling at the falcon and throwing hats — anything to distract it. I was calling to her and yelling out “where is she??” and kept getting “over there!” from all different directions. Finally someone said, “Behind you!” and THUNK, she landed on my shoulder at full speed and buried herself in my chest.
The spectators (including the ones in the air) said she was doing phenomenal flying, turns, and dives to get away from it. I probably saw less than half because she was diving behind the glider shop and into ravines. But I do know one thing — there was no place to land safely for a long distance. No trees or areas to hide. Getting down to me was definitely the safest option. The falcon flight was like nothing I’d seen before, including when Otis and Gizmo (Red-fronted Macaws belonging to Hugh Choi) were chased on the beach. This one was diving at her repeatedly at very high speed, though fortunately not from as great a height as the first attempt.
You hear some people say that having a good trained recall is irrelevant in a raptor attack. And that it may even be dangerous if the bird is focused on recall instead of evasion. I have called Carly back before when I’ve sighted a hawk in the area. She also got to safety on my when she was being chased by a large flock of ravens. Clearly in this case she was attempting to get down to me right away, but she knew when it was and wasn’t safe to land. She may have been able to outrun it eventually, but I have no doubt the chase would have gone on much longer, and with an uncertain outcome.
She was remarkably calm after it was over, walking around with me at the gliderport. Not agitated, and not frozen like parrots sometimes are after a fright. She didn’t show any interest in flying though, and was holding on to my hand with a pretty firm grip!
She will not be flying at Torrey any longer, unless I know for certain from paragliders and birders that the falcons have moved on after nesting season is over. But it looks like they are pretty much year-round here. According to Janet Linthicum, nesting starts in March and fledglings leave the nest in August. We have seen them off the cliffs from October to February also. And there are shorebirds here all year, which appear to be their major prey.
By the way, the last time Carly met up with a Peregrine, several years ago, she was flying with a large number of seagulls and started to get a bit too far away. I called her back and it looked like she was bringing a friend with her. As they approached overhead I realized it was a Peregrine Falcon, flying side by side, about 10 feet apart. She came down and the falcon kept going. Weird.
For a wonderful set of photos of Peregrines in the area, see
Peregrine Falcons at Torrey Pines