Meeting her again

The Rann of Kutch is such a flat desert that anything vertical sticks out. Our driver suddenly picked up speed before I saw the little blip that meant a concrete marker. In a few moments I could see something sitting on it. There was a sudden buzz as people recognized a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus): it was large, the ashy grey-blue of the back, the long tail, and the size are indicators at a distance.

As we approached I could see the dark moustache on the white face, and then the yellow of the eye ring and culmen (upper part of the beak). This one also had a pale “eyebrow”. I suppose this is the Indian subspecies, Falco p. peregrinator, the Shaheen falcon. We were probably near the westernmost edge of its range, since it is found from this desert eastwards to the Pacific, and southwards to Sri Lanka. In the past around 75 subspecies were described, although today many of these distinctions are held to be trivial, and only about 19 are recognized. A recent DNA analysis indicates that the subspecies diverged very recently, perhaps between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago. This is not a rare bird, although the population declined in the 20th century until the mid-70s when the use of DDT was banned. Counts made in Sri Lanka, about a decade ago, indicate that the population of Shaheen falcons has increased to the levels before DDT came into use.

This was a bold bird. It looked closely at us, and then stood its ground. It normally perches high up, so that it can take off easily when it sights prey, and then stoop down on it very fast to snatch it in the air. In the desert this little marker was a high perch. Our jeep could even circle around the bird to try to get her in good light. After a while she hopped from foot to foot, clearly bored, and flapped her wing once and took off. The last impression I had was of enormous wings, the better for mid-air manoeuvering.