Annual Garden challenge: Find the prairie falcon nest

Editor's note: Area naturalist Melissa Walker wrote about prairie falcons on her website blog March 31. It is reprinted here with permission.

By Melissa Walker

       I have had the privilege of closely observing wildlife in Garden of the Gods Park for almost 20 years. One of my annual spring challenges is to locate the nest of the

A prairie falcon perches.
Courtesy of Chris Taylor
prairie falcons. Usually they nest high on the east face of North Gateway Rock in a weathered hollow in the sandstone. Every year, the birds perform their courtship rituals, lay eggs, and raise their fledglings - while seeming oblivious to the many park visitors who hike on the trail 200 feet below the 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 of white-throated swifts and rock pigeons and snatch them 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 3 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.