The sound of my alarm jostled me awake in the predawn quiet at camp. My room was cold and I could think of nothing more dreadful than getting out of my warm sleeping bag at this ungodly hour. But we had transects to complete in the Storrie Fire and it would be a long drive to get there. I readied quickly and we were on the road before I even felt fully awake. We bumped along the Forest Service road and were gaining elevation fast. As we neared my transect we could all tell it wouldn’t be doable, at least with the coordinates given. I would have to move the transect and the road looked like the only way to do it. That was ok with me; I had just had a few days of intense hiking.
Doug and Brendan dropped me off and I started my point counts. It would be an understatement to say there were birds everywhere. There were snags but they were not dense. The ground was so thick with White Thorn and Deer Brush that you were lucky to see patches of soil anywhere. The morning was crisp and bird song was everywhere. Fox Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings and House Wrens made up the majority of the chorus. As I made my way down the road Orange-crowned Warblers literally dripped out of the Deer Brush flanking the road. I’ve noticed that moths and their caterpillars heavily favor Deer Brush and one can quickly make the connection that this is why the warblers (and other species) rely on fields of Deer Brush as well. At one point I counted over 10 Orange-crowned Warblers come out of one bush with others appearing all around as well. I’ve really never seen anything like it.
After my point counts I started my woodpecker surveys. It wasn’t long before I found an active Northern Flicker nest with almost ready-to-fledge chicks. I sat below the nest and immediately the White Thorn and Deer Brush concealed most of me. The flickers weren’t oblivious of course and were wary of coming to the nest but eventually made their way there to feed the raucous chicks. As I scribbled notes about the nest I heard a jet in the valley that lay in front of me. I almost ignored it. What was a jet doing up here anyway? It seemed like a strange place for a jet-there was forest, ravines, rivers and mountains for as far as the eye could see and it seemed like a dangerous place for a jet to be maneuvering.
As I looked to the sky in front of me it took my brain a few seconds to process what exactly was going on. There, perhaps 500 feet in front of me (above the slope that ran towards the river) was a Peregrine Falcon stooping at break-neck speed. She was going so fast that I could barely keep my eyes on her. Seconds later a second and then third bird appeared in my vision. Again it took me a few seconds to process the scene as the three birds dove, twisted and turned. Soon it was apparent that the second bird was the male peregrine and he was chasing a Rock Dove right under his mate! I lost them for a second in the binos. I worried I would miss all the action but lucked out as I caught them in the binos again just as the female Peregrine Falcon slammed into the pigeon with the force of a freight train hitting a VW Bug at full speed. The sound of the falcon hitting the pigeon mirrored that of a loud gunshot over the valley and was quickly followed by an explosion of feathers. The female falcon leveled out and as she zoomed off down the valley I could see her bring the pigeon to her chest with both feet, break its neck with her notched bill and disappear. The male was small and sleek, built just like a feathered missile and he zoomed up almost over me, did what seemed like a victory loop and disappeared to follow his mate.
Again, as I seem to be finding quite frequently in the Sierra Nevada, I was left completely speechless. No one else had witnessed this, would they even believe me? Would I ever see such a sight again in such a beautiful and remote setting? I doubted it.