Famed as the fastest life-form on the planet, with a recorded speed of 389 kilometres per hour (242 mph), the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is regularly spotted in Portugal, particularly along the western shores of the Algarve (indicated on the map below).
Described as the master of aerobatics, the peregrine falcon is a wonder to watch as it twists and turns with lengthy glides followed by sweeping stoops and steep dives, often at very high speed.
The air pressure from such a dive would ordinarily damage a bird’s lungs, but small bony tubercles on the peregrine falcon’s nostrils push the powerful airflow away, thus reducing the air pressure and enabling the bird to breathe more easily at high speed.
Furthermore, the bird’s eyes are protected by nictitating membranes (third eyelids) which clear debris from its eyes whilst facilitating full vision.
Almost all its food is taken on the wing and consists mainly of birds snatched from trees or in the air by diving into the middle of a flock and grabbing its quarry during the ensuing confusion. It is also known to occasionally hunt small mammals, reptiles and even insects.
Some years ago, the peregrine falcon was close to extinction, not only in Portugal but elsewhere in Europe. This was largely due to the use of organochlorine pesticides which caused its egg shells to become so thin that they broke very easily and the chick died, but thankfully this problem has now been eliminated and the population is gradually recovering.
The adult peregrine falcon has a distinctive plumage which, despite sometimes being a bit difficult to identify in flight, consists of a black crown with a black lobe-shaped stripe, white breast and slate- or blue-grey back.
Males are smaller than females with a length of around 45 and 50 centimetres, respectively, and their sickle-shaped wings have a span of 100 centimetres in the male and anything up to 120 in the female.
Peregrine falcons never build their own nests; they prefer to use old raven or carrion crow nests or search for a suitable ledge on a cliff or even a high-rise building.
Once settled, they lay an average of two or three eggs, sometimes four, which are almost perfectly round and beautifully mottled with red-brown.
Incubation normally lasts for around 30 days and during the forty-day fledgling period, the chicks are fed small pieces of food brought to the nest by the female. The male does all the hunting during this period, passing food to the female but taking no part in feeding the young.
The peregrine falcon is also a well-respected falconry bird due to its strong hunting ability, high trainability, versatility and, in recent years, availability via captive breeding.
Rich in both salt and freshwater wetlands, Portugal is an excellent all-year-round bird-watching destination. The combined characteristics of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts attract a wider variety of species than many other destinations, some of which is quite rare, plus it’s a preferred place of permanent habitation for many birds such as the peregrine falcon and an ideal spot for extended stopovers for others during migration.