Best Places to Spot the World’s Fastest Bird in the Pacific Northwest
The world’s fastest birds were once speeding toward extinction in the U.S., but peregrine falcons are again flying high in the Northwest. Find out where you can spot them this spring.
Editor’s note: Because of COVID-19, please take recommended health precautions when exploring outdoors.
Each spring, these fierce birds of prey return to their favorite wild cliffs, bridges and skyscrapers to court, mate and raise their downy nestlings. Some peregrines in the Northwest are migrants; others spend their entire lives here.Peregrines dazzle spectators with steep, 200 mph-plus hunting dives (called “stoops”) from 2,000 feet or higher onto unsuspecting prey. Falcons are built for hunting in flight, with long, pointed, sickle-shaped wings for speed and agility; large, keen, forward-looking eyes with vision eight times sharper than ours; and a strong, hooked bill with a notch to kill birds quickly on the wing.
The peregrine’s adaptations are “a peak of evolution,” says raptor biologist Bud Anderson, who lives in Washington’s Skagit Flats. “Everything that is unnecessary has been eliminated. And all that’s left is as close to perfection, I think, as you can get.”
We almost lost these sleek predators in the U.S. because of the widespread use of DDT. After the pesticide was banned in 1972, peregrine experts engineered a comeback, in part through captive breeding and release. Washington alone now supports over 200 known nests, from the San Juan Islands to Pacific Coast bluffs, Central Washington cliffs and canyons, and man-made structures in Tacoma and Seattle.
Washington is prime peregrine habitat for a few simple reasons, Anderson says: “Lots of cliffs, lots of rivers and lots of food.”
Peregrines in the Wild
“The main way to find peregrines is to look for what they eat,” says Sue Cottrell, who runs hawk-watching classes in Western Washington every winter and directs the nonprofit Raptor Studies Northwest in Bow, Washington.
Shorebirds and ducks are their main prey, so peregrines and other raptors often spend the winter on fields in Skagit Flats and other areas with waterfowl and shorebirds, making Western Washington a particularly dense area for year-round falcons.
During the spring and fall migrations, Grays Harbor is an excellent place to watch falcons hunting flocks of shorebirds, particularly the Sandpiper Trail at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge near Hoquiam.
In late February and early March, peregrines are flying to nest sites — ideally, on cliffs with abundant prey nearby, such as in the San Juan Islands, or on high cliffs inland near water like those at Snoqualmie Falls, where enthusiasts scan the cliffs to the right of the waterfall looking for falcons pursuing prey to bring back to their nesting site, or “eyrie.”
“There are lots of nests up and down the Columbia River Gorge,” says Ed Deal, president of Seattle-based Urban Raptor Conservancy.
You likely won’t see the nests unless you have a high-powered spotting scope — “They are big cliffs and they blend in; It’s a gray bird on a gray rock,” says Deal — but you might spot the falcons hunting or soaring with patience and a pair of binoculars.
Deal suggests scanning nearby cliffs from the top of Beacon Rock in Washington’s Beacon Rock State Park, or trying from the grounds of the Columbia River Gorge Vista House on the Oregon side of the river.
It is a federal offense to disturb a nest, and falcon watchers rarely publicize precise locations to protect the birds. For higher odds of spotting peregrine courtship and parenting, you might try a field trip with a guide or your local Audubon chapter.
Bridges and Skyscrapers
Your best bet for spotting peregrines might be closer than you think: Peregrines nest in cities across the Northwest, favoring cliff-like locations on tall buildings and bridges.
Seattle and Tacoma have active nest boxes, complete with livestreaming video. The 1201 Third Avenue nest box in downtown Seattle has been active most years since 1994, and a webcam is linked to it year-round.
Peregrines also regularly nest on the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge and the Lake Washington Ship Canal Bridge. State officials mapped a nest just southwest of Spokane’s Riverfront Park ahead of its ongoing redevelopment.
“Cities are attractive for peregrines,” says Anderson. There’s abundant prey, and there are high buildings with inaccessible ledges ideal for perching and — sometimes with adaptation — amenable to nesting.
Peregrines don’t build nests. Instead, the mated pair create their “scrape” partway down a cliff by making a slight depression in the substrate, such as sand or gravel. On skyscrapers, falcons might find a suitable spot in a window planter or nest boxes provided by building owners and lined with pea gravel.
Courting peregrines at these nesting sites bow to each other and touch bills, and the same couples often return year after year until one of the birds dies. Tacoma’s famous resident couple Murray (born on the Murray Morgan Bridge in 2004) and Harriett nest at the 1119 Pacific Avenue building, where they have hatched more than 20 chicks.
“They’re big fluffballs but those talons are no joke,” says Fergus Hyke, a photographer who used to work in the building and still rescues fallen fledglings each season. “I quickly open the door, put the chick on the roof and leave.”
High-impact collisions with windows and falls from high ledges are common ends for young falcons. A falcon hatched to Murray and Harriett in 2017 that fell twice was too badly injured to survive in the wild and now lives at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.
Each year’s clutch can be viewed via YouTube when Harriett lays her eggs in the last week of March. The parents take turns incubating the eggs until they hatch around the start of May. They’re banded with a coded identifier on their legs (right for females, left for males) and the wait begins for the chicks to start learning to fly.
“That’s when the nest cam will get a lot more visitors, rooting for this one, noticing how big that one is,” Hyke says.
Whether they’re wild or urban, when the fledglings jump out of the nesting site and leave, they may fly to new locations outside the city, or stick around. Eventually, the nesting pair may leave for the summer, usually returning to the area in the late fall or winter to reclaim their nest site and hold off competitors.
“I’ve been looking at peregrines for 50-plus years,” says Anderson. “I’ve lived with them, studied them and watched them all day long, and I still see new stuff. They are just endlessly fascinating.”
–Written by Maria Dolan
–Top photo by Lord Runar/Getty Images
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.