Driving through the backcountry in search of wild horses, a quick burst of movement caught my eye just off the trail in a stand of northern bayberry. We stopped, pulled out the binoculars and began scanning the edge of the shrub thicket. Another flurry of movement produced a young peregrine falcon as she hopped down onto the sand in a small clearing. Our clients set frozen in the safari cruiser, all eyes watching the bird. Immediately we recognized that she was in fact clutching onto a small woodland bird in her talons – a yellow rumped warbler to be exact – and we had stumbled upon a falcon in the middle of its meal.
Yellow rumped warblers migrate south to the Outer Banks in fall by the thousands. The individuals of this species that live along the eastern seaboard like this used to be known as myrtle warblers for their preference of eating the berries of wax myrtles and northern bayberries – which would explain the location of the kill. These myrtle warblers are one of only a very small handful of birds whose digestive system if even capable of handling the thick waxy coating of the berries from these two species of plants and is certainly the only warbler you will ever find doing so. For this reason, the yellow rumped warbler is able to winter far to the north of other species of normally insect eating warblers.
Perigrine falcons, such as the one dinning on the warbler before us, follow the migrating flocks of songbirds and shorebirds south along these barrier islands. Reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour in dives, these falcons are not only the fastest animals on Earth, but such speeds make them perfectly suited for a life sustained through eating such smaller birds like warblers on the wing. Perigrines will literally snatch small birds right out of the air and eat them as they continue to fly showcasing their own version of fast food preference.
Another key role that barrier islands like the Outer Banks have in the biology of peregrine falcons is their smaller populations of great horned owls. Great horned owls are the number one predator of peregrine falcons, as they swoop in with complete silence and stealth to pluck the smaller falcon off of its perch while fast asleep at night. Few animals of prey size are a match for these silent killers of the night, and though great horned owls do live on the Outer Banks, their numbers of sufficiently low enough to put the falcons at ease.
Venturing into the backcountry of the 4×4 beaches always offers an endless array of possibilities for wildlife watching this time of year. Swans by the tens of thousands are migrating to the shallow and protected waters of our back island sounds, raptors rolling across the heavens in an almost endless procession – stopping in to dine upon the feast below. Humpback whales can be spotted in full breach just beyond the outer bars, as the coastal bottlenose dolphin hunts inside of the surf zone. This is Autumn on the Outer Banks, a time that every guide working the beach will agree, may just simply be the absolute best time of the year to be out here.