Jann & Gil Randell on the dunes of Ocracoke Photo by P. Vankevich
By Peter Vankevich
Peregrine falcons are spectacular birds.
To see one in flight, perched in a tree or on a water tower is an exciting experience. They can be seen on Ocracoke from fall into the early winter as they migrate south.
Very little was known about their passageway over Ocracoke until a couple of experienced raptor counters showed up on the island several years ago and started taking note.
Gil and Jann Randell, from Mayville, NY, and who have a second house on Ocracoke, have been spending several hours a day in September and October to record migrating raptors, i.e. birds of prey which include falcons, hawks, eagles and new-world vultures.
This fall on Ocracoke, 11 species have been observed. See the tally below.
By far the highest number seen are peregrines, which can be identified by their long pointed wings and dark sideburns that give them a helmet look. Adults have blue/gray backs; immature birds are brown.
They are considered to be one of the fastest animals in the world, clocked at more than 200 mph.
Regional populations of these birds plummeted during the mid-20th century. The main culprit was attributed to the use of the insecticide DDT that was banned in 1972 because a chemical compound in it caused eggshell thinning which led to nest failure.
Other scientific theories attributed to their longer pre-DDT decline include the extinction of the passenger pigeon (which, when abundant, served as a ready food source), hunting, egg collecting and even climate change.
By 1970, peregrines were gone from the East leaving only a rapidly declining arctic/tundra population in North America, and it was declared an endangered species.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1975, there were only 324 known breeding pairs of American peregrine falcons.
Extensive efforts to reestablish them have been successful and there are now about 3,000 breeding pairs in North America. In 1999 they were removed from the Endangered Species List.
The name “peregrine” means wanderer, and the tundra-nesting falcons winter in southern South America, traveling more than 15,000 miles in a year.
Interestingly, many of the reintroduced birds to Eastern North America have adapted to urbanization and nest on bridges and high buildings.
Web cams of urban peregrines proliferate on the Internet.
Gil Randell’s interest in raptors began in 1956 when he made a fall visit to Hawk Mountain, Pa., one of the best locations to observe migrating raptors. He is active in the North American Hawk Migration Association (HMANA), serving as a past president, a current director and is chair of its conservation committee.
Jann, in spite of her modesty, is an excellent spotter, often being the first to see a speck high in the air coming across the Hatteras Inlet that often morphs into a hawk or falcon.
The Randells observation location is on the dunes at what locals have dubbed the “North Pony parking lot.”
This is one of narrowest parts of the island and migrating birds will funnel through and more easily be seen.
Up to Oct. 26, the Randells counted 290 peregrines (see below), with the highest single day 122, occurring on Oct 4. Is this a particularly high number? Gil is not so sure. He professes that coastal migration is still a bit of a mystery to him.
“Without a consistent and sustained time period staffed by good observers over several years, one cannot really know how many of these magnificent birds fly over Ocracoke,” he noted. Throughout North America, there are hawk observation sites that do just that. To see hawk counts in a particular area, go to http://hawkcount.org/ . The site has extensive reports from more than 100 locations.
One of the ways to help predict whether there will be a big flight passing over Ocracoke, would be to check reports of the previous couple of days at the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch located at the tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
A lot of these birds are following the coastline and may fly over Ocracoke. The day before the 122 Peregrines were observed on Ocracoke, 214 were reported at Kiptopeke.
2014 OCRACOKE Raptor Report
Turkey Vulture — 85
Bald Eagle 2
Northern Harrier 30
Sharep-shinned hawk 52
Cooper’s hawk 24
Red-tailed hawk 1
Broad-winged hawk 1
American kestrel 105
Peregrine falcon 290
September 14 through October 26: No count was taken on 10 different days because of rain; otherwise, typically, the count was taken for roughly 2 hours each day between 10:30 and 2:30.