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From the December 2009 Conservationist

A Peregrine falcon attacks a Snowy owl on the beach

Photo: John Mattera

Fight or Flight

Falcon and owl aerial battle caught on camera

By John Mattera (photos) and Dave Nelson (text)

In nature, aggressive interactions can occur between different predator species. Such interactions are often about who rules the territory, and who controls the bounty it provides. Sometimes it's about nesting habitat; few things raise the level of behavioral responses above that of a mother protecting her young. When food is involved, animals' instincts are to fiercely defend their prey, for in so doing, they might live to see another day.

While these interactions are fairly common, they are infrequently witnessed by humans. Capturing such a moment with a camera is rarer still. Occasionally, however, everything comes together, and a photographer finds himself in close proximity to two predators entirely focused on each other.

A snowy owl standing in beach grass

In December 2008, off-duty Bureau of Environmental Criminal Investigations (BECI) Lieutenant John Mattera was photographing a snowy owl-a fairly uncommon visitor-at Jones Beach on Long Island when the unexpected happened. Unbeknownst to Mattera, a peregrine falcon was a few hundred yards away on the beach, guarding the carcass of a ring-billed gull it had killed. To the falcon, the owl was unwelcome competition for its hard-earned meal, and so when the unknowing owl flew from the dunes to the beach, the falcon had had enough, and attacked. These photos show the interaction that ensued.

A snowy owl dodges a peregrine falcon's attack

A falcon will use a combination of speed, surprise and its sharp talons to deliver a serious blow to unsuspecting prey or a competitor. A snowy owl, however, has some pretty significant weaponry of its own. By rolling onto its back in flight, the owl met the business end of the falcon in a move ornithologists call "presenting talons." This went on repeatedly, until the owl eventually tired of the continued harassment and left the area.

At that point, the falcon returned to the beach and feasted on the gull, leaving only feathers and bones (see page 6). The following day, Mattera saw the owl again, apparently none the worse for wear.

Peregrine falcon attacking a snowy owl

A Lieutenant in DEC's BECI for many years, John Mattera retired this past July. He is an avid photographer, and used a Nikon D3 with a 600-mm lens and a 1.4X converter to film this encounter.

Dave Nelson is editor of Conservationist.

The owl defends itself from the peregrine falcon by flipping onto its back while in the air to present its talons