Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 4, 2018

Life in the Food Chain with Peregrines and Other Predators

We often walk along Paseo del Mar, which follows the top of the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. It leads to a city park at Point Fermin, a headland projecting south from the southern California coast. You can spot the old lighthouse on the promontory in this shot:

Pt Fermin Brad Nixon sm 0391

The rocky shore attracts gulls, cormorants and other sea birds, while flights of pelicans soar overhead, riding the updrafts.

Pelican flight Brad Nixon 5794 (640x480)

In the big food chain picture, the sea birds are a link between land and ocean. They fly and breathe air, but live off fish and crustaceans. It’s not only dog eat dog in this world, but bird eat fish. Out there in the water, mammals eat fish and crustaceans, too, including a variety of whales and dolphins, not to mention a direct connection to the land, sea lions, seen here taking a break on a favorite rock at the foot of Point Fermin.

sea lions Brad Nixon 2555 sm

On the land side, the brushy shrubs that cling to the top of the bluffs are full of small birds that eat seeds, nuts and insects. Our local small birds include swallows, bushtits, rock wrens and a variety of sparrows, grosbeaks and finches.

They’re quick, furtive, darting from one branch to the next. They have to be wary, because there’s danger afoot. At least one den of foxes lives right at the tip of Point Fermin near the lighthouse. Coyotes are present here on the peninsula in increasing numbers, and raccoons, opossums and a few other mammals are threats to nests.

But there’s danger above, as well: hawks. Here are a few I’ve seen in the area. If you click on the left-hand one, you’ll see a Red-Tailed Hawk with some less fortunate animal in its talons.

There are falcons, too, including the smallest one in North America, the American Kestrel.

American Kestrel Brad Nixon 8132 (640x480)

That’s its typical hunting pose: perched, scanning the ground for small animals and birds, although it sometimes hunts by hovering.

All to be feared. But one predator always hunts from above, hovering on the ocean wind, watching for birds, almost its sole prey: the Peregrine Falcon. Here’s one I watched recently.

Peregrine hover Brad Nixon 2377 sm

Falco peregrinus is the world’s most widely distributed raptor. A pair of them live at Point Fermin. They’re the fastest of earth’s creatures, and can dive for prey at over 200 mph (320 km/hr). Even ducks and gulls are potential targets for this highly evolved hunter. Watching them plummet is to witness a staggering sight; it’s almost impossible to believe that you’re seeing a living animal move at such terrific velocity.

At this time of year, our local male and female pair are often visible, either zooming along the bluffs at astounding speed or hovering, watching, hunting. They’re busy, because they’re raising the next generation. Just a week ago, they were busy feeding their offspring, which had been three fluffy little chicks tucked into a cleft in the cliffs of Pt. Fermin. Then, a few days ago, we saw all three of the young birds, diving at mind-bending speed, then climbing and hovering nearly motionless in the air, learning to hunt for themselves. Here’s a photo from a year ago of how one looked just as he got ready to fly.

Peregrine falcon Brad Nixon 1551 (640x577)

For the fish, sea birds, sea lions, hawks and falcons, hunting is an intrinsic part of the life cycle, and in the animal kingdom, it serves one purpose: survival.

Believe it or not, despite their astonishing speed and incredible mobility and vision, the Peregrines aren’t at the top of the food chain on the cliff. Large, terrestrial hunters show up, attracted by the falcons.

Photographers Brad Nixon 1 640

They’re not particularly well-adapted for hunting, neither fast or endowed with particularly acute vision, but they have tools (red circles) that extend their reach.

Photographers 4 circle Brad Nixon

They’re packing serious hardware to zoom in on and photograph those compact, fast falcons perched on the cliff or hovering hundreds of feet away.

Some of those large predators are, in fact, professional photographers, working to feed their own offspring, which often gather in collective environments like this one.

School 2 Brad Nixon 640

Easily accessed, not tucked high in a remote cliff or deep in a burrow, such places are increasingly serving as hunting grounds for other members of their own species, equipped with highly specialized tools specifically designed for quickly killing large numbers of their fellow humans. No other species I know of hunts for the sheer perversity of the act. Not like those detestable predators, armed with their horrific weapons.

Nature is cruel? Don’t get me started.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. Very well written and informative! Great pics!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful shots of raptors! My husband heard the jays squawking the other day and went out to see a Peregrine Falcon with a baby blue jay on his talons. I know it’s only nature but it is still sad. I once fell apart when my three cats slaughtered a baby cardinal in my living room…


    • Don’t get me started on cats. I know they’re following their nature, but they play by different rules. It’s almost certainly unfair to issue judgments like “slaughtered,” but they do seem to specialize in it. Not their fault that they’re not always cute little felines.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, we picked ours up from the streets of Cairo, in their defense. They never stopped being feral.


      • Illinois or Egypt? !!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Egypt of course. I think they were part Djinn…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I still remember my sense of relief when I discovered that many of the bird and wildlife photos I so admired weren’t solely a result of experience and skill. Those lenses do make a difference. (Didn’t someone once say that a photographer’s reach should exceed his pocketbook? Maybe I have that wrong.)

    Your larger point’s well taken, and presented with just the right degree of subtlety.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually tried to come up with a play on reach/grasp. Thank you.


  4. Nice photos, I really like your Paragine Falcons pics. I hear these birds occasionally nest in skyscrappers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Yes, I’ve read a number of times about the falcons nesting way up on extremely tall buildings. At one time, there was a webcam in New York City where one could watch a falcon’s nest. May still be out there. Glad to have your comment.


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