The Fast, the Furious, and the Feathered

The West Matukituki Valley might be my new favorite place.

We’re back from hiatus! I took a few weeks off to focus on moving house, and to travel around NZ’s South Island for a couple weeks with my mom, who came to help me move and to visit NZ. We made a big loop around the South Island – from Kaikoura to Kahurangi National Park to Milford Sound – but the highlight of the trip was 4 days of tramping (or backpacking, to non-kiwis) in the West Matukituki Valley near Wanaka. We stayed at Aspiring Hut and did day walks from there, and it was fantastic! So great to get away from the roads and the “canned views”, as landscape photographer Spencer Cox calls them.

I couldn't get too close, but the kea (top blob) and falcon (bottom blob) are screaming their heads off at each other!

While we were out in the backcountry, we got to see New Zealand falcons! NZ falcons are rare and endemic (meaning they can only be found in NZ), so getting to see one is pretty special. I’ve been visiting NZ since 2014, and living here since 2016, and the only time I’d ever seen a NZ falcon was on the $20 bill! There was a pair nesting quite close to the hut, and we could hear them screeching to each other early in the morning. On our third morning, we woke up to an absolute cacophony – the kea (a highly intelligent NZ native alpine parrot) that regularly frequents the hut was chasing the male falcon from tree to tree, while the falcon screamed at the kea to get out of its territory. It was insane! I tried to get close enough for a clear shot, but when I got too close, the falcon decided that I was in his territory too, and swooped at me! Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat.

NZ falcon, or Karearea. Image by Karora.

Seeing the NZ falcons reminded me of just how awesome raptors are. I don’t mean raptors like dinosaurs – I mean birds of prey (although birds are closely related to dinosaurs). Birds like hawks, eagles, falcons, and kites, that are designed to catch and eat mammals, reptiles, fish, and other birds*. Raptors can be distinguished from other birds through their talons, beaks, and eyes. All raptors have long sharp talons and strong feet for grabbing and holding small animals, and a sharp hooked beak for ripping flesh. Their eyesight is excellent; they have up to 5 times more photoreceptors (light receiving cells) in their retinas than humans do! Plus the center of their field of vision is magnified due to the structure of the eye. They're designed for hunting, plain and simple.

 

Here are some of my personal favorite birds of prey (aside from the NZ Falcon):

 

  Ospreys are also known as sea hawks, river hawks, and fish hawks. Image by  Andy Morffew .

Ospreys are also known as sea hawks, river hawks, and fish hawks. Image by Andy Morffew.

Osprey: These guys have their own genus, separate from other types of raptors, and they’re specialized for fishing. There are places in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay where every single marker has an osprey nest on it! They live all over the world, but they always remind me of home when I see them.

 

 

10/10 side-eye, because kestrels are tiny furious fluffs. Image by Andy Morffew.

Kestrel: One of the smaller raptor species, around the size of a blue jay or a pigeon. Kestrels have UV sensitive vision, which they use to detect urine from mice and voles. My very first “job” was helping out at a nature center that rehabilitated raptors near my home in Maryland when I was about 12. The boss figured that a tiny kestrel would be okay for a kid like me to handle, but it turned out that her entire 8 inch length was just packed with rage, so she became “adults only”.

 

A national icon. Image from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Bald Eagle: Being American, it wouldn’t feel right to leave off the national bird of the United States (although as I mentioned in a previous post, Benjamin Franklin wanted our national bird to be the turkey). Bald eagle nests have been measured up to nearly 3 meters (10 feet) across! Pairs will return to the same nest year after year, and keep building it bigger.

 

Haast eagle attacking moa (which, for scale, can stand up to 8 feet tall). Image by John Megahan, for PLoS article "Ancient DNA tells story of giant eagle evolution".

Haast Eagle: NZ’s other native raptor (not including owls) went extinct some 500 years ago, but when it was alive, it was the world’s largest bird of prey** with a wingspan over 3 meters (10 feet)! Maori told stories of giant man-eating birds, and they’re true – Haast eagles were big enough to snatch and eat human children. They also went after moa, giant flightless birds that could reach heights of 3 meters. After Maori hunted moa to extinction, Haast eagles lost their primary food source and eventually vanished themselves.

 

Peregrines are not to be messed with! Image by Paul Balfe.

Peregrine Falcon: The world’s fastest bird (and if you count birds as “land animals”, the world’s fastest land animal). Peregrines have been recorded at speeds up to almost 400 km/h, or almost 250 mph, in a dive! That colossal speed helps them catch other birds in the air, and their aerodynamic body structure has provided inspiration to engineers looking to build superfast planes and trains.

 

It’s a real treat to see these winged predators in action (although perhaps not the Haast eagle), and it was especially cool to see the NZ falcon up in Mt Aspiring National Park! Maybe a new contender for the NZ Bird of the Year contest next year? We’ll see…

 

*Yes, owls and vultures are birds of prey too, but they each have their own distinct sets of features, and each deserves their own blog post (coming soon!).

**The largest eagles living today are the Steller's sea eagle and the African martial eagle, which can reach wingspans of 2.6 meters (8.5 feet).