May 22, 2018

Chaotic world belonging to man and beast

Handsome, striking; a male peregrine falcon, the fastest creature known to nature, perched amid the tangle and chaos of the human world, sitting atop a lamp tower on the Tasman Bridge.

He sits upright, jerking his head about him. Looking up, looking down, his eyes following the flight of starlings arrowing towards their winter night roosts on the bridge’s concrete spans. They are returning at day’s end from feeding forays into the country.

The starlings know the peregrine will be waiting, timing his arrival at the bridge at precisely the time of theirs: between 4.30pm and sunset at 5.07pm.

Flying in tight formations, swaying and gyrating like a swam of insects to confuse the falcon, they try to deny him a single target to strike and pluck from the sky.  During his swoop, or stoop, the peregrine will be capable of reaching speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour.

The spectacle of peregrine falcons hunting starlings on the Tasman Bridge is well known to birdwatchers. In the past, parties of birders visiting from the mainland have even been moved on by the police, the officers worried the gawking and pointing from the raised footpaths on each side of the bridge might distract motorists.

Seasoned peregrine watchers, however, know the best vantage points are the car parks on each side of the river, which sit where the old floating bridge that was the forerunner of the modern structure were anchored.

Here the dashing flight of the anchor-shaped peregrine can be seen in the context of an open sky framed by the Southern Ocean to the south and hills and mountains to the east, west and north.

The night I arrive the peregrine fails to show at first. I know he is about. A friend who photographs ships sliding through the bridge’s spans has reported a sighting the night before. I wait, and am about to depart as it gets dark, thinking I’ve missed him. Suddenly there he is. He’s a beauty, a perfect, well-groomed male. Silver feathers on the breast, flecked with grey, slate-blue back and black “moustaches” running down his face, to absorb glare if he hunts into the sun at mid-day.

It’s a surreal moment at dusk; theatre in the spotlight of the bridge’s lights just coming to life in time for the evening rush hour.  The whirr of traffic, the steady rhythm of tyre on tarmacadam, the soft, long whistle uttered by starlings as they come in to land, as though calling to clan members to move over and make room for them on the crowded concrete terraces under the bridge, above the rippled waters of the River Derwent.

A groove has been cut in the black surface of the river by the wake of a fur seal, and as a flipper breaks the surface this flashes yellow in the beam of the bridge’s lights.  An oystercatcher pipes its staccato song as its flies fast and direct across the water’s surface, another reminder this chaotic, noisy world belongs to both man and beast.

But at dusk, it belongs most of all to the regal peregrine.


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