SHI SHI BEACH: The Peregrine and the Pirate

A Bald Eagle stole the prey from a Peregrine Falcon in this exciting story of life along the Pacific Ocean in Olympic National Park.

Bald Eagle turning in flight to make a raid on a Peregrine Falcon’s kill

When humans don’t behave by human standards, we call it criminal. When wildlife doesn’t behave according to human standards, we call it fascinating–especially when the behavior involves two iconic species once categorized as endangered. The wild piracy portrayed here occurred on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean, in Olympic National Park.

Nervous gulls take to the air from their resting and bathing site at the mouth of Willoughby Creek along Shi Shi Beach

As we crossed Willoughby Creek along the sandy shores of Shi Shi Beach, vacationing biologist Mike Layes greeted us and pointed out a Peregrine Falcon about 100 feet away, perched atop a dead gull on the beach. Mike had been camping, and said he had seen the falcon make several kills where the stream meets the Pacific Ocean.The falcon looked briefly at us, then resumed plucking bright white feathers from the gull it had just killed.

Peregrine Falcon feeding on gull

The mouth of Willoughby Creek is a gathering place for gulls, who drink from and bathe in its waters and seek protection in numbers of its own kind. In fact, when we were hiking down the beach, looking for a place we could get water, I had mentioned to Karen that the gathering of gulls ahead looked like it could be at a source of fresh water. Turned out, it was.

Gulls gathered at the mouth of Willoughby Creek

The gathering of gulls didn’t provide safety in numbers in this instance. Mike said the falcon dove fast and hard on the gulls, scattering them and giving it an opportunity to take one down. The strange thing was, once the falcon began defeathering and devouring the dead gull, other gulls landed and settled back into their routines–just twenty five feet away! Maybe they figured that the victim had it coming. More likely, they had seen it all before and figured they were safe as long as the predator was occupied with lunch.

Peregrine with a gull feather in its beak

The falcon sees the Bald Eagle targeting his prey

The falcon dug into its meal, holding down the carcass with its talons as it tugged on the meat. Suddenly it became alert and looked south. In the distance, from the sea stacks of Point of Arches, we saw a distant Bald Eagle heading straight toward us. The falcon instantly took to the air, like a fighter pilot taking off to intercept an enemy bomber. The eagle closed the distance quickly, and withstood the missiles of hate that the falcon aimed its way. Then the eagle wheeled in the sky above us, and descended toward the falcon’s gull carcass. It missed the first time, but on the second swoop it adeptly grabbed the carcass in its talons, on the fly, and began slowly gaining altitude. We watched as the enraged Peregrine Falcon buzzed it with all the skill of a Top Gun. Alas, all to no avail as the eagle flew with its pirated treasure back to the sea stacks at Point of Arches.

Bald Eagle with its eyes fixed on the falcon’s prey

Bald Eagle with dead gull in its talons, being buzzed by an angry Peregrine Falcon

During his day on the beach, the biologist had seen this battle scenario repeated three times. We went back the next day and the next, and sat and waited for another display of aerial combat. Alas, it was not to be. Apparently the falcon decided that three strikes and he was out.

You can view a video of the event on YouTube at: The Peregrine and the Pirate.

Peregrine Falcon headed back to the sea stacks at Point of Arches

We did see the falcon once more; it came to quietly drink from Willoughby Creek, high on the beach, as we and others watched it from about 100 feet away.

We saw Brown Pelicans and Black Oystercatchers along the shore, and Wilson’s Warblers and a Hermit Thrush in our campsite, but the alpha experience was watching a professional pirate at work, skillfully turning the falcon’s ability to hunt to its own advantage. Arrrgggh!

Feathers plucked from the gull by the Peregrine Falcon, now floating at the edge of Willoughby Creek

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guessed that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead. For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach.

February 2, 2009 Stories of Life on a Ragged Old Maple

Eagles, cormorants, ospreys, falcons, and woodpeckers all make use of an old Bigleaf Maple tree on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.


We awoke two days ago to dense fog over Fawn Lake. When we looked out the windows at dawn, there was a Bald Eagle perched atop the old and ragged Bigleaf Maple tree that sits along the waterfront. This tree has been just hanging on to life for the 18+ years we have lived on this little Olympic Peninsula lake, 2009_wa_23491and we desperately hope that it continues to live, because it provides so much benefit to the birds of Fawn Lake. Some of the major limbs are dead and the branches drip with mosses and lichens. Windstorms and eagles thrusting off have broken branches, and woodpeckers have excavated here and there, lending the tree a rough appearance that is anything but graceful. Yet the birds love it–and thus so do we.

During the summer of 1993, a pair of Ospreys roosted virtually every night on one of the high horizontal branches of the maple. They flew in at deepest dusk, then perched side-by-side like lovers and spent the night on their high roost. At the break of dawn, they flew off to


go fishing. They often brought trout back to the tree for a leisurely midday meal. We really missed the Ospreys when they migrated that autumn.

Bald Eagles often land on the maple, because the bare branches at the top lend a panoramic view of the lake. When the eagle visited several days ago, it was apparently waiting for the fog to clear, and stayed several hours. At first, the eagle faced our house, where there was lively songbird activity at the feeders we maintain. The eagle appeared to take a lively interest in the small birds, moving its head when the birds suddenly flew. Later, when the lake started to clear, the eagle turned around on its perch to face the lake, then actively watched the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks as they courted and fed. The eagle reminded me of a cat watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder with intense interest. As the fog nearly cleared, the eagle took off.

A little over a decade ago, I installed a Wood Duck nest box and a Swallow box on the lower reaches of the tree. Actually, the installation taxed my strength and agility on a tall ladder, but I managed to get it done without breaking my neck. I don’t recall if we hosted any nesting ducks that spring, but we did have a Western Screech-owl take up residency in the nest box for a night, and I was able to photograph it at close range as it stuck only its sleepy face out of the entrance.



That spring or the next, Violet-green Swallows nested in their designated box. I was really excited by the new family, and when I saw a Raccoon sticking its arm into the nest box in the dark and fishing around for the young, I reacted as if I was nature’s arbiter of what was fair and good, and shouted and threw stones at the Raccoon. The Raccoon 155801retreated, but I saw that it had a swallow sideways in its mouth, looking like a feathery mustache. After that, I installed a predator guard, using a piece of slick aluminum to wrap the tree at about my head height. About the same time, I also wrapped the base of a nearby cherry tree to prevent the Beavers from gnawing it down. With the predator guard, the Raccoon problems ceased, though Douglas Squirrels and Northern Flying Squirrels still have the run of the tree.

Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the songbirds that feed on insects tucked here and there on the tree. Probing the tree’s depths are Pileated Woodpeckers and Red-breasted152091Sapsuckers. On occasion in recent years, I have taken to yelling at a Pileated Woodpecker that hammers too long on the upper trunk, because I know it wouldn’t take much for the tree to weaken and lose one of its major limbs, which would harm the habitat of all the others birds that use the tree. It’s sacrilegious, I know, to scare away a Pileated, but sometimes it is just so rewarding to play God.

As the years went by, we began watching Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks 188581competing for the nest box, so I set up a second nest box on the opposite side of the tree. Then I installed an infrared camera in one nest box so that we could watch the lives of the ducks on live reality television. It was magical! That spring of 2007 we watched the nest box cam for hours at a time, and were finally rewarded by the hatching and fledging of a mixed family of young Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks leaping out of the nest box to the lake below. [I will recap this whole story in a blog entry soon to come]. We have now been hosting mostly Hooded Mergansers for years, and each year we see more of these beautiful ducks during the winter. There are also more Wood Ducks coming each spring, and they are simply beautiful in low morning sunshine as they perch on the mossy limbs of the tree. Some of the Wood Ducks even come to our platform feeder on the deck to nibble on sunflower seeds. We never thought we would have a duck coming to the feeder–especially an elegant Wood Duck! 

The latest birds to use the tree are Double-Crested Cormorants. There are some tall firs and cedars on a nearby lot that have been used each winter for resting and night roosting by a loose colony of cormorants that spend the day fishing the lake.

Those trees seem to have an overpopulation problem, so several weeks ago a juvenile cormorant came and perched on the maple, and ended up staying all night. It became possessive, and after a sword fight with sharp bills, chased away a Great Blue Heron that took a liking to the cormorant’s favored branch. Soon more cormorants joined it, and we had four or five spending the night. I decided I had enough cormorants, and began harassing them so that we would not


end up with a tree filled with cormorants–and breaking all the remaining delicate branches. My harassment campaign is not going so well; for the most part, the cormorants ignore me unless I walk directly under the tree and start waving my arms and yelling. Shouldering the task of balancing nature is such a heavy burden!


Recently a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk flew up to the highest limb after an unsuccessful raid on our feeders. It perched for about two hours, actively watching the comings and goings at the feeders without making an attack.2009_wa_21651Perhaps it was planning a future raid, or maybe it just wasn’t hungry. We watched it grooming and stretching and reaching up with a yellow leg and needle-sharp talons to scratch its head. Then it flew off across the lake with a fresh mission on its mind.

And the beat of life goes on …


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