Vincent O’Brien was eating lunch on the 16th floor of the downtown office building where he works when he spotted an unfamiliar visitor: A peregrine falcon had just landed on the Frost Tower three blocks north.
“It was like seeing a wolf or bear on top of a skyscraper,” said O’Brien, who has been bird-watching for a decade. “It was dramatic and inspiring — a glimpse of an animal that is the ultimate symbol of wilderness.”
O’Brien said that a female peregrine falcon and sometimes a male one — both marked by black and white barring, pointed yellow-brown tail feathers and slate blue beak — have been spotted regularly since September perched on one of the white prongs of the Frost Bank logo. He last saw the bird Friday.
Peregrine falcons aren’t common in Central Texas, according to local bird experts. But with climate changes, the birds, which normally migrate to the Texas coast in the winter, have been slowly moving inland. Populations of peregrines have rebounded over the last few decades after their numbers were decimated by the use of the pesticide DDT.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not some in Austin every winter now. At the same time, if we were together and you said, ‘Let’s go find a peregrine falcon,’ we would have no expectations that we could,” said Mark Lockwood, interim director of state parks region 1 for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Natural oases like Lady Bird Lake and the Capitol grounds are huge attractions for birds. Neighboring skyscrapers act like cliffs to the peregrines, giving them great vantage points to spot such prey as the ubiquitous rock pigeons. Few are a match for the speedy peregrine, which can reach up to 200 mph when it attacks.
“I was able to catch them do a cooperative hunt on the streets of downtown,” O’Brien said. “One of the falcons flew around a building really low and flushed some rock pigeons into the air. The second falcon was at the left side of the building high up and intercepted the pigeon, which I thought was fascinating.”
Two peregrine falcons were also sighted at the University of Texas clock tower over the summer, but it’s unclear whether that’s the same pair seen at the Frost Tower.
The male didn’t stick around, and no nesting material has been found, so the two likely never bred, said Nate McGowan, who compiles rare bird sightings for the local Travis Audubon Society. It would be even more remarkable if a pair of peregrines decided to reproduce in Austin, he said.
Not so good for the pigeons, though.