When the first brutal and deadly attack came, it came out of the blue. As far as attacks go, most military strategists will agree that a sneak attack is best. Surprise is a great weapon to add to any arsenal and when the unexpected sneak attacks began, the Beach Boys and Girls of Marco were surprised as anyone and shocked by the vicious nature of the aerial assaults.
The first attack came in early March just when spring break was getting underway. The waterways were busy, the sky was clear, and when the catamaran set anchor on the westward strand of Keewaydin Beach, we had no idea the next half hour would end in a bloodbath.
As normal with our sailing excursions, we capture a sea breeze and ride the wind to one of the out-islands where we anchor, stop, and explore. The beaches are always fun to investigate and the bountiful seashells that wash up with every tide are hard to ignore. On the day of the first attack, our crew was walking the beach and looking down, having no idea that precise calculations were underway far above our heads. As the adults were walking and focused on the seashells and sand at our feet, a single seagull was up to the usual seagull behavior. The gull was continuously crying out and flapping around just above our heads as we walked, because the scavenging bird wanted the snack food the children were eating. As our group moved forward the gull would fly, flap, and continue to screech with obvious intent until everyone ignored the obnoxious behavior.
When no human was watching, the surprise aerial attack began and was finished in about three seconds. Every human head looked up, however, when we all heard a loud “thwack.” Imagine the sound of two fingers on one hand slapping into the palm of the other hand. That was the sound when the gull was hit, and its head popped off. With seagull head flying off in one direction, we were all in shock as we looked to the airborne predator that clutched the fallen seagull body in its talons and began ripping the feathers away on the seagull’s breast. Everyone was about ten feet way and watching as the bird of prey paused in the plucking of seagull feathers to look back at us with an expression of “What? Haven’t you ever seen anyone have lunch before?”
About the time that we were all standing still in shocked amazement, a little boy, who was still snacking, looked up and asked: “Daddy what kind of bird is that?” Daddy responded, “Son,” he said, “I think that’s a chicken hawk.”
“That’s no chicken hawk,” another in our group spoke up. “That ladies and gentlemen is a Peregrine Falcon.”
With the demise of the seagull on the sand well underway, we continued to listen to our crewmember who was fascinated and extremely knowledgeable about falconry. Meanwhile, the Peregrine, with its vivid black and white checked leg feathers and gray helmet head, ignored us and continued with lunch.
“I can’t believe we were fortunate enough to see a Peregrine in action,” the falconer explained. “These birds of prey truly are remarkable. The Peregrines typically begin their hunting cycles by climbing to about 2,000 feet and remain there soaring. At this waiting height, they can easily observe low flying birds. Seagulls are one of their favorites and when a gull is selected, the Peregrine will begin the diving attack with complete accuracy. When the Peregrine Falcon begins an attack, they can tuck in their wings like a fighter plane and dive at speeds up to 200-miles-an-hour. When they hit their target, the targeted bird never knows what happened. The force of the impact kills the prey at once and often decapitates the victim.”
Our falconer continued, “The Peregrines have been cared for and trained by humans since well before Christ. Before firearms, Peregrines were used to hunt food for the human table. At the height of falconry, trained Peregrines would work in teams of three and could take down small deer. Many of the terms we use today in English come from falconry. ‘Fed up’ in falconry means that the bird is full, not interested, and does not want to fly or hunt.” Our falconer laughed. “I guess when humans are fed up it means the same thing. Hoodwinked means to cover the bird’s eyes with a small hood so it will become relaxed. Hoodwinked for us means to trick, distract, or deceive someone.”
After our lesson in Peregrines and falconry was complete, we climbed back aboard and as we sailed, searched the blue skies for the amazing bird of prey that is always looking downward and planning another attack from above.
A week later, another Beach Boy approached with the same story. “I saw the craziest thing,” he exclaimed. “There were all these seagulls going crazy and trying to get someone’s food when out of the blue, here comes this super-fast hawk with these striped legs. Before we knew it, one of the seagulls was hit so hard it’s head popped off.”
A week after the Marco Beach attack, seagulls were up to their usual at a busy Marco pool – flapping, screeching, and trying to steal human food – when a third Peregrine swooped down with another surprise attack and another seagull head popped like a champagne cork. Despite the crowded pool in between the condominium towers, the Peregrine ignored all the humans only a few feet away and calmly continued with lunch, as many mothers screamed and shouted and tried to shield their offspring from witnessing the bloodthirsty aerial attacks. “Hide the children!” the mothers screeched. “Don’t let them see this. They will never be able to sleep!”
We later learned that airboat tours cruising through the Everglades would also have begging seagulls hoping for human food when they also fell victim to Peregrine Falcons and their indifferent but amazing airborne attacks.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available of Kindle and Nook.