I was at a beach in San Diego last week admiring the brown pelicans flying overhead. They are the supreme flyers, with wing spans of 6 to 8 feet and able to soar only inches above the waves while looking for fish or skimming the cliffs without moving their wings, making tiny adjustments in their flight patterns to catch the thermals that come up from the ocean. At Torrey Pines, I watched as rows of pelicans came floating along the cliffs from the north and south, like lines of armadas, supremely powerful and confident.
Suddenly, I saw a small bird—a raven or crow, I thought—come out from the cliff and hit one of the pelicans. And then this huge bird plummeted to the ground. I thought it was an accident, one bird hitting another, and waited for the pelican to rouse itself, fly back up and join its comrades.
There were several of us on the beach coming from different directions who had witnessed the crash. A young woman who had been sitting with her boyfriend was the first to reach the downed bird, and I could see by the anguished look on her face that something bad had happened. She had witnessed its death throes, she told us, five women gathered around the bird, trying to make sense of what we saw. Even in death, the bird did not look diminished, splayed on the sand, its wings outstretched (below).
By then we had figured out what happened. A peregrine falcon (left, among the rocky outcrops) had its nest in the cliffs, and the pelicans had flown too close. A ferocious bird, the falcon had attacked the closest pelican, probably breaking its neck with its claws. Indeed, as we stood there watching, the falcon flew out again from its perch toward another line of pelicans, but this time the birds moved out of the way fast enough.
Among our group was a German woman. “Just like that death comes,” she kept repeating. And we finally all moved away, went back to what we were doing: jogging, spending time with a boyfriend, beachcombing.
Sobered, I continued walking down the beach, the waves crashing on one side while the tall ochre cliffs stood guard on the other, concealing dangers I had only dimly been aware of. I distracted myself by watching snowy egrets, almost ghost-like against the white surf, pecking at something the waves brought in.
And the pelicans continued to come, row after row, but if the falcon attacked another one, I didn’t want to know. One minute you are soaring high above the land, feeling the wind through your feathers, and the next you’re lying on the sand taking your last breath. None of us know when, but I hope the last thing I feel is the wind on my face.