During the early morning hours (0530) at our hotel in Iquique, Don sent us Felipes roost coordinates via e-mail. We knew looking at them on Google Earth that this might be our one chance to actually see him. He was both just within range and accessible.
We immediately packed up and were out the door and on the road in 30 minutes. We left the tropical coast (65 degrees F at 0600) and made the climb up into the high desert, reaching Ruta 5 in the dark at 0700.
We drove north by GPS looking for an inconspicuous dirt road heading east out into the desert. Felipe had done something new this time. He had left the mountain range above the Pacific and crossed the flat, dry "central valley" before flying over towards the high Andean foothills. We couldn't tell what was over there but we were driving across the typical flat "moonscape" that you hear about in the Atacama. Flat, vast with a surface of small pebbles stretching across the ground for miles.
Central Valley Floor
It began to just get light around 0700, and as we crossed the central valley, we watched the sun coming up over the Andes. We were racing to get to his roost site before he left, probably driving faster than we really should have.
Once it got light, we could see that we were approaching the main Andean chain and suddenly, just after sunrise at 0804, out of nowhere, we crossed a small stream. I cannot express what a surprise this was. It sounds like nothing at all, but out here in the desert, you just don't see that. But it was a sign of things to come and related to why Felipe was over here.
We followed the GPS coordinates and found that we were now paralleling a small river valley that got deeper and deeper as we approached out destination. Along the way, we saw several small marshes that could easily support birdlife. So, in order, extreme desert, then water, add some vegetation, attract some birdlife, then migrant peregrines. Pretty simple equation.
Approaching the Canyon
As we drove on, this stream eventually lead us up into a canyon and when we hit the right GPS coordinates at 0824, I jumped out with the VHF antenna and immediately got some strong beeps! Thankfully, he was still here.
We were on the rim of a small canyon, maybe 500' deep, with a grey, muddy stream and a broad valley floor littered with boulders of all sizes. We pinpointed Felipes location across the canyon from us but, despite searching hard, we could not find him. So frustrating as he was right in front of us and could no doubt see us quite clearly.
I saw another dirt road down in the canyon and we elected to drive down in hopes under getting closer to him. We gambled that he would not fly while we were driving down.
We found the entry road and headed down. It was sort of like prospecting. We would stop and swing the antenna every half mile until we got the signal, then move towards it, refining our search with each stop. Once we got to the strongest VHF signal, we pulled over and began our visual search once again.
Now I have been looking at peregrines on canyon walls and cliffs for more decades than I want to say and I am pretty good at finding them but I could not locate this guy, despite looking intently at every rock, ledge and slope. I mean I spent 40 minutes trying to find him and the receiver confirmed that he was right there in front of us. Frustrating.
I was just about to cross the canyon to get closer and risk flushing him, when Shirley got out her Swarovski scope and in a remarkably short time, nailed his location at 0945. It was a fantastic spot on her part and she essentially saved the day.
Thanks to her, we finally saw him after a thousand mile, seven day chase.
He was sitting maybe 4/5ths of the way up a long dirt slope, just under some rimrock, but on one of the most bland perches you can imagine. I had hoped for something more dramatic but it was just the side of a dirt slope, directly above a small rock. Nothing fancy.
Felipe's Perch on the Canyon Wall
I had not been able to find him because my sense of scale was completely off, a typical mistake that any rookie might make. The canyon was simply much bigger than it looked. He was way smaller than my search image allowed.
But we got to see him.
He was just sitting there in the sun, preening and stretching and looking at us now and then, looking very much the tundra peregrine, gray back, black head and white front, glowing in the sunlight against the tan hillside.
I could clearly see his antenna but, surprisingly, not his satellite transmitter.
He also had a full crop so he had eaten something that morning and was just sitting out there in the warm morning sun.
We sat looking at him for the next hour, just enjoying spending time with him during some quiet moments.
Close-up of the Canyon Perch-the Most Prominent Small Rock in Center Of Slope. Look for the Dark Flat Shadow at Bottom of Rock
Felipe Preeening in the Morning Sun
We later found from the GPS data that although he was now on the south side of the canyon, he had roosted on the north side just above the road we drove in on to get into the canyon.
Felipe's Roosting Cliff on Left
He kept looking straight up into the air, which usually means that a peregrine is either watching prey or another raptor. I sat back and searched the sky but I could not see what he was looking at this time. Perhaps it was the movement of the clouds because as at 1036, he took off on his migration once again. We lost his signal as soon as he topped out over the north rim of the canyon.
We packed up and drove out after him. Once we reached the top of the canyon, we found there was a strong wind blowing out of the south. He had caught it and was gone. We could tell from the variation in the radio signal that he was circling in the air and moving north.
We drove on, heading for Arica and the border with Peru.