© 2022 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Birdwatchers In The Keys On Alert For Nature's Speed Demon

Kerry Ross

The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on the planet. 
Throw a brick off the top of the Empire State Building and the Peregrine will fall out of the sky faster.

The secret is the falcon’s ability to shape its body into an almost perfect teardrop, fine tuning its muscles and feathers according to the feel of the rushing wind. Navy scientists using radar have clocked them doing 240 miles per hour. Peregrine Falcons don’t do this for fun. They do it to survive.

They feed themselves by swooping down and catching smaller, slower birds. Doves. Mockingbirds. Starlings. They prefer to catch their prey on the wing. They are the sustenance assassins of the natural world. All this makes the Peregrine Falcon sound like the one of those magical beasts mere mortals don’t get to see. Which is not the case. From now until mid November there will be more Peregrine Falcons moving through south Florida than anywhere else on earth.

Peregrine Falcons migrate incomprehensible distances. Many of the ones moving through here come from Alaska and Canada’s Northern Territories. Some come from Greenland. They travel down through the Caribbean and as far away as Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America.

In the 1970s it was impossible to find a wild Peregrine Falcon east of the Mississippi. And only 39 pairs could be found west. They’d been wiped out by DDT poisoning.

Once the widespread use of DDT was banned – conservation groups starting working to bring the back the Peregrines (if you can refer to them like that). They used captive breeding, and slowly – succeeded -- hatching birds and releasing them on mountain aeries, rocky cliffsides, and even on city skyscrapers, where the falcons could catch the slow moving pigeons. Eventually Peregrine Falcons repopulated many of their old habitats.

They came back so strongly that in 1999 they were taken off the endangered species list. Which is not to say they don’t still need to be protected. 
Last year more than 38-hundred flew through Florida. While it’s possible to see a Peregrine Falcon anywhere in Florida, the best place is at Curry Hammock State Park on Grassy Key.

Peregrine Falcons, like most birds of prey, can’t swim. Every time they fly over water they risk their lives. So when they fly to Cuba, they try to make the water crossing as short as possible. The best and safest jumping off points are in the Lower Keys south of the Seven Mile Bridge. Grassy Key is about ten miles north of there. It’s also about a mile wide, and functions as a migratory bottleneck.

We know the exact number of peregrines that fly over Grassy Key because of the work of Rafael Glavez and his crew at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch. The counters at the hawkwatch station themselves at Curry Hammock State Park on Grassy Key for about two months every fall, staring into the sky and counting every raptor they see that passes by –not just Peregrine Falcons, but about a dozen other species of falcons, hawks, and eagles.

It’s a way of counting the birds and monitoring the health of their populations. The hawkwatch started in 1999, and they counted a little over 1,500 Peregrines that year. So the fact that it more than doubled last year is a good sign. This year’s numbers are looking good too. It could be another record setting year.

No one is really sure if, or for how long the numbers will keep growing. But every Peregrine that flies through Florida is a testament to the fact that human beings can occasionally fix the things we break, and that the world is still a little bit wild.