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NATURE NARRATIVES: The Garden's prairie falcons

Terry Sohl photo
By Melissa Walker

       I have had the privilege of closely observing wildlife in Garden of the Gods Park for many years. I often see mule deer, coyotes, and even Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the park, and I look forward to spring and summer for the many opportunities to observe the behavior of nesting birds.
       One of my annual spring challenges is to locate the nest of the prairie falcons. Usually they nest high on the east face of North Gateway Rock, in a weathered hollow in the sandstone not far from the Kissing Camels. This year is no exception. The falcons perform their courtship rituals, lay eggs and raise their fledglings every year, while seemingly oblivious to the many park visitors who hike on the trail 200 feet below their nest.
       The prairie falcon is a bird-of-prey built for speed. It is streamlined with a sleek head, long pointed wings and a tapered tail. These features enable the falcon to overtake its favorite prey - a white-throated swift - and snatch it out of the air.
       Another hunting technique is “stooping.” Flying at great heights, the falcon targets a bird, then folds its wings and dives at almost 200 miles per hour to strike its prey with such tremendous force that it knocks it out of the air. I witnessed this dramatic event one morning while hiking in the Garden. A white-throated swift was flying incredibly fast just three feet off the ground when all of a sudden, a prairie falcon appeared out of nowhere and knocked the swift to the ground. I cautiously approached the swift. It was already dead from the impact. Then I waited about 100 feet away to see what the falcon would do. It again appeared as if out of nowhere, landed next to the dead swift and immediately began to tear it into bite-sized pieces and consume it.
       In Colorado's Pikes Peak area, the prairie falcons can be found year-round in the cliffs and canyons of the foothills. In Garden of the Gods Park, close observers may see rock pigeons and swifts scatter whenever a prairie falcon takes to the air.

       Editor's note: A Westside naturalist, Walker posts regular entries in her online blog at naturenarratives.com. She has given her permission to reprint selected pieces in the Westside Pioneer.
       Added note: Guided prairie falcon viewing opportunities have been made available this summer at the Garden of the Gods, Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m., down the paved path from the North Main Parking Lot, where volunteers will have spotting scopes and binoculars.

(Posted 5/18/14, updated 5/29/14) Opinion: Nature Narratives)

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