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Want To See The Fastest Animal On Earth? Look Up This Weekend In The Keys

It's the time of year when residents from the Florida Keys can catch a glimpse of thousands of Peregrine Falcons on their way to South America.

The falcons are considered the fastest animals on earth — reaching speeds up to 240 miles per hour. Spectators and professional birdwatchers from around the world will gather in the Florida Keys this weekend for the annual “Hawk Mania”event.

Mark Hedden is the Executive Director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society and Rafael Gálvez is the Director of the Florida Keys Hawkwatch Migration Project, and they both spoke with Sundial's Luis Hernandez about the significance of the falcons and this weekend's event.

GÁLVEZ: It's beautiful to watch all these birds passing through. It is like a river of birds all going away from our continent towards destinations unknown. It touches our hearts in a way that sort of mirrors our own migrations. We've all come from somewhere else and we may all be going to yet different destinations unknown and these birds ... when you're sitting out there by the beach and watching them passing by... I'm an immigrant. I came from Peru and some of these Peregrine Falcons will fly over the place of my birth and maybe my brother that's down there by the beach will get to see them. It reminds us that we are citizens of the world. We tend to want to think well these are our birds the eagle or the hawk is an American species, but in reality, the Peregrine Falcons that fly over the Florida Keys will fly over every country in Latin America and the Caribbean.

WLRN: Mark, why the Florida Keys? Why is that a stop? Why not anywhere else in Florida or just go straight to Cuba? Why is that a special place?

HEDDEN: The really simple version of it is, it's risky for a bird of prey, a falcon and a hawk to fly over water. They can't swim and they largely move by kind of riding up on thermals like an elevator and then gliding as long as possible but thermals don't exist over water. So they're trying to get as close to Cuba as possible before they have to make that powered flight. The Keys is basically kind of like a ramp. It starts kind of just below Marathon and the Keys, but we still get a goodly number of them in Key West every year.

In the last few years of this event, typically what do you see? How many are you going to see come through?

HEDDEN: In Key West, you get a new tricky situation because they hit Key West and like a lot of people they just kind of hang around for a while. The numbers are better out of Marathon but we'll see probably 200 in a day. It all depends. There's another dozen species of raptors we also see migrating.

I saw the National Geographic videos when they're doing their dive and I saw when they attacked a pigeon. Do you get to see them in the hunt as well?

HEDDEN: We were doing it two years ago and there were seven different peregrine falcons fighting over the same bird that they were all trying to eat. They were basically harassing each other until one of them dropped it and another one comes in and grabbed it. They were chasing each other around until they dropped it. And you're talking about National Geographic videos and part of this for me is when I grew up it wasn't just videos. I realized they live in the Keys and I could, in September and October, walk outside -- last night I was emptying my trash can and I looked up and there's a peregrine flying over my house. The fact that they're just so proximate and available makes me want to grab people by the shirt collar and point them out to them.

Rafael, for people who are not birders but there's an interest, how does a person get started? What would you suggest to them how they could begin?

GÁLVEZ: First thing, just come and join us. I really think that this is not really an event for birders per se. Birders tend to have shorter attention spans. They want to see multiple species and chase after different species. This is more of a sit back relax and witness one of nature's most amazing spectacles.