Dunlins (Calidris alpina) are sandpipers that winter in large flocks at and near the Washington coast. Because they are common, they represent an important part of the diet of wintering bird-eating falcons (especially Peregrine Falcons and Merlins). When you find a large flock of Dunlins, there is every chance that one or more falcons will be nearby, and you may be gifted with one of nature’s more spectacular shows.
An adult male and an adult female stooped on the flock several times each, scattering the sandpipers like confetti. But it was confetti with a purpose, as the birds flushed and then became dense moving objects, oscillating back and forth over the landscape in alternating brown camouflage and white flash as they showed their upper- or undersides.
The speed at which the falcons went through the flock was breathtaking. The male seemed faster than the female, perhaps only an illusion because of his smaller size. After each pass, the predator would gain altitude quickly, then come back through in a dive. It would level out not far above the ground or water and come shooting through in level flight.
The biggest show was put on by a young female, easily distinguished because of her brown upperparts and striped underparts. She shot through the Dunlin flocks again and again, stooping perhaps 25 times as we watched. A lightning pass at eye level, sometimes coming within 50 feet of our car, then up and down again for another pass. She never picked one out of the air, but then we saw her circle around and pick one up from the water, presumably a casualty of her strike or a midair Dunlin collision.
We saw a Glaucous-winged Gull carrying a Dunlin in its bill, presumably another bird that hadn't survived the aerial confusion.
There was also a nearby Prairie Falcon that we never saw harass the Dunlins, perhaps because it already had something for lunch. A male Northern Harrier also passed through the waves of Dunlins but with no luck.