Illinois birder Rick Remington (who, by the way, was the original finder of now-famous Chicago Sandwich Tern) sent me a story and a set of photos he wanted to share.
Remington and a birding buddy were out just before dawn on January 29, birding Chicago’s lakefront parks, when they stumbled upon a Snowy Owl. There have been several in the area since December, and finding one was not wholly unexpected. The bird was roosting on a large sculpture in the park, and what happened next was, well, definitely not expected…
I suggested we take in the sunrise and come back later to watch her once the light was better. After John reluctantly agreed, we walked down to the shoreline and watched a sunrise that looked for a short time like it might be world class but turned out to be very ordinary. The best was yet to come …
We returned to the owl spot 45 minutes later to find she was sitting on the ground in the open grass next to a large field. We watched her from a distance for close to 2 hours as it snowed off and on and the only activity was the occasional harassment by crows which is a minor nuisance to a snowy. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the owl adopted a defensive stance with its wings spread and eyes blazing.
I told John that something was about to happen, and sure enough a few seconds later a gray missile swooped in and attacked out of nowhere. At no time during the harrasment by the crows did I see the owl adopt the defensive stance she was using at this point. She instinctively understood the difference between these birds and knew this was a serious situation. I was watching the owl the entire time and took my eye off my camera for just a second, and saw that the attacking bird was a Peregrine Falcon.
I shouted “Peregrine” to John and he immediately turned his camera to follow the Falcon while I stayed with the Snowy Owl. It was cloudy with less than perfect light conditions so I quickly adjusted my camera to account for the increased shutter speed requirements of an in flight battle. I could tell just before the Falcon would attack by the way the Owl crouched down and got ready to lunge.
It would do a somersault just as the Peregrine approached and flash its nasty talons in an attempt to scare off the Falcon. The battle lasted for 5 full minutes before the Falcon headed off in another direction and the Snowy Owl flew down to the rocks by the lake. It was a surprisingly violent and noisy encounter, with both birds shrieking loudly and the owl extending its giant wings to intimidate the smaller falcon. I fully expected this to end badly for the owl based on what I was watching. In spite of the obvious mismatch, the Snowy Owl managed to hold its own and escape unscathed.
After both birds had flown off I realized I was shaking badly with excitement that continued for at least 5 minutes. Once I settled down we gave each other a giant high five and laughed like little kids. John repeatedly remarked, “ I can’t believe how fast a Peregrine Falcon is”. As I mentioned earlier, at the start of the attack John turned his camera to track the falcon while I stayed with the Owl the entire time. The end result is that poor John did not have one single useable picture of the attack while I had at least a few. We both said that regardless of whether the pictures turned out we were happy just to witness one of natures greatest gifts right on the Chicago Lakefront with the beautiful city skyline in the background. When I got home and looked through my photos I was thrilled to see that some of my pictures turned out! It goes without saying that I did not get a single household chore done when I got home. Thank God my wife understands the importance of a rare bird encounter!
The Peregrine was one of a pair that nests a short distance away in downtown Chicago and was defending it’s hunting turf. I’ve seen this pair escort all manner of other raptors that happen to be migrating down the lakefront out of the area, but never so close and dramatically. Here’s the rest of Rick’s amazing pictures…
And with a wink to the photographers, peace and quiet resumed.
All photos © 2011 Rick RemingtonShare on Facebook