An Incredible Experience With A Prairie Falcon And A Hapless Duck

This morning on Antelope Island was a photographic bust – heavy snow coming down most of the time and no light to speak of.  So finally, after several hours of hoping the clouds would clear, we put our tails between our legs and headed for home.  Talk about perfect timing!

We’d traversed about half the causeway when the clouds parted, light blossomed and a serendipitous adult Prairie Falcon appeared, hunting for ducks.

 

northern shoveler 4620 ron dudley

The falcon ambushed this male Northern Shoveler just as I was getting my pickup in position, so I missed that shot but this one was taken within a second or two of the strike.  The duck is bleeding heavily.

 

 

northern shoveler 4622 ron dudley

It struggled for a minute or so, and then died in the water.

 

 

northern shoveler 4647 ron dudley

After the attack, the falcon would perch along the causeway for a short period, then take off and fly over the duck.  This was done repeatedly.   With my 500mm plus tc I could never get both the duck and the falcon in the image – this is as close as I came.

 

 

prairie falcon 4688 ron dudley

 1/1600, f/5.6, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

Here, the falcon is perched to watch the duck out on the water.

 

 

prairie falcon 4701 ron dudley

 1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

I had a difficult time locking focus on the falcon as it buzzed the duck because the textured water background was so close to the bird.  I kept getting sharp shots of water and a blurry bird.  This is one of the few relatively sharp shots of the falcon in flight that I was able to get.

 

 

prairie falcon 4793 ron dudley

 1/1600, f/5.6, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

The falcon kept perching closer and closer to the duck as the wind and waves washed the Shoveler into the shore.  I’m fairly convinced the falcon was waiting for just that to happen, so it didn’t have to pluck it out of the water and fly with it.

As all this was going on, noisy traffic (the road was wet) kept going by, which obviously made the bird nervous but it wasn’t going to give up on its meal.

 

 

prairie falcon 4846 ron dudley

  1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

 Here, the falcon is approaching the Shoveler, which by now has washed up onto the shore.

 

 

prairie falcon 4869 ron dudley

  1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

 And the falcon finally claims its prize.

 

 

prairie falcon 4880 ron dudley

 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

I suspect this to be the infamous “death bite” of the falcon.   All falcon species have a tooth-like projection on their upper mandible, called the “falcon tooth” or tomial tooth, that fits into a notch on the lower mandible, which they use to bite the spinal cord to render their prey helpless.  This duck was already dead, but I wonder if it might be an instinctive behavior to make the bite anyway.

 

 

prairie falcon 4892 ron dudley

  1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

 In this shot, the falcon has begun to pluck the feathers on the back of the neck of the duck.  I was surprised that the muscles of the neck were the first parts of the duck that were consumed.

 

 

prairie falcon 4939 ron dudley

  1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

 The waves kept washing over the Shoveler as the falcon tried to eat, so to avoid them the falcon began to drag the duck further onto the shore…

 

 

prairie falcon 4940 ron dudley

  1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

which required a lot of effort.

 

 

prairie falcon 4951 ron dudley

  1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

 For a split second, the falcon looked directly at me as it was dragging its prey.  I was glad to get full eye contact with this wing spread.

 

 

prairie falcon 4984 ron dudley

  1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

The falcon really worked over that neck!  Once the feathers there were all plucked it began to seriously enjoy the meal.  The bite the bird is about to swallow was just removed from the neck – you can see where it was taken from.

Caution – this last shot is a little gruesome so some may wish to avoid scrolling further.

 

 

prairie falcon 5079 ron dudley

  1/1250, f/6.3, ISO 800, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

By this time the sun has disappeared for good behind some dark clouds and the light is gone but I wanted to show you how serious these birds are about rejecting the intestines of their prey – something I’ve seen, and documented, many  times – here,  here, here and here.  All these coiled, reddish-orange tubes are intestines that the falcon has very deliberately removed and deposited in front of the duck.

My experience with this Prairie Falcon is one I won’t soon forget.  And I was also delighted that it was an adult bird – in my experience it’s much more difficult to get close to adults than it is to juveniles.

Ron

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45 comments to An Incredible Experience With A Prairie Falcon And A Hapless Duck

  • […] the duck and it died within seconds.  If you’ve never seen it before that attack can be seen here (you can see blood spurting from the duck just seconds after the attack in the first shot).  My […]

  • Patty Chadwick

    An AMAZING series! Something I’d never even hope to see on my own…That looks like strategy to me.

  • […] the fatal strike, but he recorded in graphic detail what happened next. He has posted an amazing photographic story on his Feathered Photography […]

  • DKB

    Since any approach from in front of prey seems almost doomed to fail, I’m sure that any raptor does its best to “sneak up” on its victim. I’m especially impressed by the intelligence of the falcon here in making its multistep hunt; attacking and killing the big bird on the water, waiting on the lee shore for the bird to drift in, and dragging it out of the water to a more convenient dining site. If it didn’t have the whole process in mind to begin with, I doubt it would ever have taken on such a big bird as the shoveler in the first place.

  • Qassim

    just one word : FANTASTIC.

  • Jim Hackley

    Excellent series Ron, wonderful sharp images and well documented.

  • rolando

    Incredible, great photos, the one with the wingspread and the eye contact is my favorite

  • Kelly Horne

    Wow, what a site to be seen! I was on the Island later in the day to shoot scenery and it was a treat to see so many active animals that day. The coyotes and antelope were spectacular. But your shots of the falcon are amazing! Can’t wait to get out there on another snowy day. The Island is beautiful covered in snow.

  • Charlotte Norton

    WOW! How fantastic that you were able to photograph the entire process so beautifully! The shots are simply incredible. Nature is amazing.

  • What an incredible thing to witness… I’ve NEVER seen this, or heard of such a thing (an attack over the water). Tricky! Such amazing captures — thanks, as always, for sharing.

  • Hello Ron, what an experience and what a document. I cannot remember having seen anything like this before – you must feel pretty happy with these shots ! Well done, all the best from the Netherlands, Cheers, Hans

    • Hi Hans, This is the kind of event I wish you could have seen (and photographed) on the day you were on the island. I enjoyed meeting you that day and hope you visit us again. Your Outdoor Industry Association is making quite the splash in the news around here right now, with their pressure on Obama to create a new National Monument around Canyonlands NP.

  • Wow! You take some of the most amazing bird pictures I have ever seen. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jerry Liguori

    Ron:

    Bryce told me you had this amazing experience and to check out the pics….awesome of course!!!!

    And also, the bird is in its first adult plumage, all the flight feathers and body feathers are the same age. I’m sure this is the juvenile from last year that was quite tame and hung out in the same area all winter…think so? Makes sense. Either way, thanks for the pics….hope to see you out there soon.

    Jerry

    • Thanks Jerry. Makes sense to me too, especially with your input on the situation. We keep looking for you too, “out there”. Every time I’m down in the valley and looking up the mountain toward where we saw you last, I hope you didn’t get stuck up there after they closed the roads. :)

  • Nicole

    What a fantastic series of photos!!! A treat for us viewers, despite a long hard day for you! What was the time frame between when the duck was first attacked, and when it arrived on shore to be eaten? Thanks again so much for sharing!!

    • Hi Nicole, and thank you. Going back through my many images if this episode (498 of them), the duck was ambushed at 10:23 AM and it was just washing ashore at 10:30 – so, 7 minutes. I think it was more the wind, than the waves, that brought it ashore.

  • Dick Ashford

    Ron,
    Wow-squared! Your choice of superlatives! Amazing, and I bet you went home with a smile on your face…

    Speaking of angle of attack- our southern OR Prairie Falcons tend to be rodent eaters, and on two separate occasions I have seen a bird lift off from a utility pole, fly low in one direction until it reached a swale or hedgerow, and then turn 90 degrees (parallel to its original line of sight) to fly unseen behind the cover. A few seconds later, the bird did another 90 degree turn to come out and catch its prey unawares, the bird arriving at right angles to its original position. The second such sighting was in full view of our birding group, which elicited lots of oohs and aahs.

    Thanks again!

    • I’m extremely interested in your comment and observation, Dick – here’s why. As you can imagine, the causeway to the island is a narrow, elevated (averaging perhaps 15′ above water level) road with water on both sides. The ducks tend to congregate close to the causeway so I’ve always thought it would be an excellent strategy for falcons to first spot their potential quarry from high above, then blindside them by using the elevated road to hide their approach. But I’ve never seen either Prairies or Peregrines do this. Perhaps I’ve just missed it or maybe it’s not in their hunting repertoire. I just don’t know…

  • Those are some incredible photos, Ron!

  • Earl

    Wow you really nailed it just like the falcon.
    Thanks for shareing.

    • Thank you, Earl. We thought that you might come up behind us and share the experience but perhaps you’d left the island by then. It was good to visit with you yesterday.

  • Mark Runnels

    Hi Ron,
    I have never seen a falcon hit a duck in the water that came out on top. I have had several very young birds try to take a duck off the water, but they always wound up getting wet (me too most of the time) and learned to wait for the ducks to leave the water. I am not sure that they could lift the duck free of the surface tension of the water. Very creative of this bird to wait for it to wash ashore.

    It is interesting that this is a Prairie, I don’t think a Peregrine would risk the same attack. the generally wont fight with prey on the ground, let alone in the water. The fact that this is a 2-3 year old bird says that she has probably done this before. I wonder how common this behavior is among Prairies?

    You are probably correct that the falcon is conscientious of the direction of attack and is trying to stay out of sight as long as possible. I have watched Cooper’s hawks fly low and keep a bush between themselves and the prey bird until the last possible moment. I have also seen Ferruginous hawks work as a pair. One will fly openly beyond the danger range and all of the prairie dogs will watch it while another hawk attacks from behind. Kinda the same idea. One hawk is distracting the prey so that the other can approach without being seen.

    Beautiful pictures. I love contrasting the wild behavior with that of our trained birds.

    Thanks Ron.

    Mark

    • Thanks for replying to my question Mark.

      Perhaps falcons hunting ducks in the water is a local behavioral adaptation, due to the conditions around the causeway? Makes me wonder…

      Interesting, what you said about “team hunting” in Ferruginous Hawks. I’ve only heard of such a thing with Harris’s Hawks.

  • What an astonishing experience. And what an amazing end to a day which promised nothing but disappointment. I am so happy for you – and so grateful that you shared it. Thank you – yet again.

  • Incredible! Preparation + Skill + Luck = Success!!!

  • For a rather ho-hum start to the day this sequence of events must have raised your adrenaline off the charts Ron. Terrific behavior expertly chronicled-congratulations!

  • Sharon Constant

    At the risk of being repetitive with my comments…Wow, wow, wow and wow! Unbelievably fabulous sequence! I feel bad for the poor Shoveler, but it looks like he was dispatched with great swiftness and skill. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing experience and photographs. I didn’t know about the tomial tooth, so thanks for that tidbit as well.

    • Thank you, Sharon. Watching falcons (Peregrines and Prairies) sneak up on ducks in the water is incredibly fascinating (I think I’ve seen it four or five times now, but sometimes from quite a distance). It’s my impression that they try to come up from behind, so the duck is less likely to see them coming. They apparently hit their prey with their talons when they’re going very fast, and the wound always seems to be lethal. They just wait around a while, then go get their “easy” meal.

      Mark Runnels (or any one else who knows) – if you read this, I’d love to know your take on this – is it typical for falcons to sneak up from behind, or do I think I’m seeing something I’m not?

  • YTQ

    I was very fascinated by this sighting, and all of the shots you took. Just an interesting side note: the barn owls would have eaten the ‘sketti’. HA!

  • Wonderful experience and photos! Congrats!