Behind The Book

Meet the stars of On the Wing

Amelia was the first peregrine we followed all the way north. As she grew restless with the lengthening days of approaching summer, we could see a change come over her. Yet long before she left the hunting flats of the Texas coast, I wondered why she sought the vultures' thermals every morning, riding up thousands of feet, where she’d never ventured? And why go higher every day? All Amelia could find up there were vantage points--ever loftier aerial sites from which her laser eyes could pick out the upthrust highlands that , 100 miles inland, would guide her north. Within her there had to burn a force. Some guiding image more ephemeral than a blueprint of the genes, something more dreamlike than memory--but some awareness, some close-held picture of a rocky, cliff-side place not far from where she herself had hatched.

Gradually the pull of that distant prospect must have swum into focus, pulling her up toward the heights she would need to vault the continent. And somehow, we had managed to be with her at the moment when that primal vision at last exploded across her consciousness, spinning her away like a bright spark flung from the circling vultures. Wisps of chocolate cloud, the last of their flock swept beneath our wings but, five miles ahead, Amelia was already changing -- not just choosing her course of migration but starting to remake herself. As the minutes passed it was like seeing a butterfly slough its gray-shroud chrysalis, for with every mile Amelia was creating a new winged being. The mostly idle, afternoon-dozing little hawk George and I thought we knew so well was leaving us, becoming an unfamiliar 30 ounces of singular purpose. Stroking deeply and steadily, she swept past the shoreline and, focussed now on lands far beyond our accustomed coastal haunts, like a departing angel she pressed on toward those distant highlands. It was what I'd glimpsed on my first radio tracking flight with Vose--the primordial flame of which we'd had only a vague idea when we chose it as our beacon. Now, caught in its power, George and I exchanged a look. Locked on this heading, Amelia had committed herself to the western fork of the tundra peregrines' long highway home. If she lived, with or without us she was going to Alaska.

Crazy Legs
Crazy Legs was, for a while, Bill Satterfield's pride and joy. I'd been at Padre when she was brought in, and like many of the newly flighted youngsters that arrived on the barrier islands, she was thoroughly beaten up. But Crazy Legs, as we called her for her twisted, previously broken left leg, was worse. Somehow she had made it down from the arctic on wings gapped by the stubs of missing flight feathers, likely broken from tackling too large prey, and in desperation she had come in to one of our pigeons. Satterfield, who was both a vet and a student of falcon ecology, wasn't optimistic. "Even if she lives, I can't see her defending a nest ledge. And she doesn't reproduce, statistically she's a questionable member of the population." On her carpet covered perch, C.L. could not even look at us. In the Cyclops's cave of beach cabin, just the sight of her lumbering captors would have provoked constant, panicked flight, and in the darkness of her hood she could only bend to pick at the bits of pigeon breast we slipped beneath her toes. Otherwise, she did not move. Satterfield was able to stand that for almost two full days. Then the scientist in him capitulated, and to soothe away her fear Bill knocked off his trapping. His work began at night. An hour after the rest of us had turned in, I heard him begin to cluck the low, infant feeding call peregrines use as baby talk with their mates. Mingling his counterfeit peregrine voice with the pulse of distant surf, during the long hours of darkness Bill plied his courtship, like Cyrano, from the shadows. Even with her hood removed, his small Roxanne could not see him well enough to panic, and by the third night she had begun to relax, cocking her head expectantly as he began his serenade. Deep in my down bag, I wasn't sure when I first heard her reply.

Six months later, packed with muscle built on wings held aloft by fresh flight feathers I had watched Satterfield surgically implant, Crazy Legs was ready to go. A gusty springtime wind greeted Bill and me as we pulled away from the beach house, riding slowly because he was steering his ATV with with just one hand; on his wrist, proudly hooded as a falcon in a Restoration woodcut, stood C.L. Three miles southeast he stopped, removed C.L.'s anklets, and slipped off her hood. As usual, she shook herself out and swiveled around, eyeing the vast horizon. "You're free, Gal," Satterfield said softly. C.L. looked down and nibbled the place on her yellow shanks where her tethers had been. Then she dropped from Bill's wrist, swooped an inch off the sand, and swept away with the wind. It had happened too quickly, and, insanely, we leapt on the ATVs and spun off after her, burning out the emotion over the sand. For more than a hell-for-leather mile we could see her flickering wings before she vanished into the mist over the dunes.

Once they have flown even a little, raptors' souls wed themselves to the air in ways probably impossible for humans to comprehend. Gravely wounded, Cherokee had been brought to the Austin Natural Science Center, where I worked. A just fledged red-tailed hawk still patched with milky down, he had been an easy target for someone with a shotgun who'd blown apart his left wing, right up to the shoulder. Eventually, though, Cherokee healed, and got his Indian name from the kids who used the feathers from his amputated wing for headdresses. Then, because the Center always had more hurt hawks than it could care for, he at last came home with me, and from him I learned the power of the sky. Inside my backyard's tall cedar fence he'd tear around on foot, holding out his good wing for balance, and leap up onto my wrist for his daily mice. But he never forgot what lay above. From my arm he'd cock a burning eye upward at -- as far as I could tell -- nothing. Then there 'd be the faint con-trail of a passing jet, and I'd figure Cherokee was scrutinizing the passengers in its windows. But he didn't just watch the sky; he wanted to be part of it. Eventually, helped by frantic flaps from his good right wing, he learned to reach the topmost branch of a big oak. There he would spend the day, riveting every passing jay or overflying vulture with a gleaming golden eye. But it was not enough. Every few hours the freedom he saw in other flying things would grow too much, and Cherokee would clench his straw colored feet, squat, and from his worn-bare branch, fling himself upward with all his strength. Face turned hopefully toward the firmament, he'd gain an inch or two on earth before it pulled him back, parachuting down onto the grass. Before dark, though, he'd be back on his branch, ready to try again. But here's the thing: this naive baby, who might have spent no more than a day on the wing before he was shot, then spent twelve years trying to regain the sky.

Anukiat got his name from what an Inupiat teenager had called me the day I left the Arctic Slope. Hoping I had drugs to trade he complimented me on my travels, grinning something like 'ungliat' or 'anukliat.' It didn't matter: peregrine means traveler anyway and now our last transmitter-carrying peregrine was Anukiat. Quasi-Inupiat for traveler. Almost a full day behind our two girls -- the pair of adolescent female peregrines we called the Ninas -- Anukiat was the last to leave the Gulf Coast on his autumn migration to the tropics. George and I were looking for the Ninas near the Mexican fishing village of La Pesca when I punched Anukiat's #.973 into our telemetry receiver. As his beeps blared out of its speaker, I dived out from under the Cessna's wing, binoculars in hand. I didn't need them. To the north, the estuary's icing of shorebirds was starting to explode. As if detonated by some silent oncoming artillery, every hundred yards a shimmering geyser of waders -- willets, yellowlegs, godwits, turnstones -- was throwing itself into the sky. As each rising fountain of birds came streaming down the beach, peppering our ears with their cries, another, closer flock would suddenly erupt -- for in the distance, on casual wings,came Anukiat.

The Ninas
As George and I flew into Mexico behind our two Ninas, I realized that, for once, following peregrines was going to be easy. Our two falcon girls just dawdled, that sunny autumn morning, back and forth across the hundreds of square miles of sorghum fields north of Lake Vincente Guerrero. I asked George to take us down to see what they were looking at and realized that, a dozen miles apart, both were patrolling the fields' hackberry borders. Those tall hedgerows would be full of finches and sparrows, but I'd started on a theory that the helpless pigeons our falcons had caught on Padre might have prompted them, in the desperation of their long migration, to look for the similar doves that would also inhabit those hedges. Then I realized that was ridiculous. Winging along below, neither falcon felt herself to be embarked on some primal quest. Each was simply exercising her newfound freedom of movement through the air, hungrily chasing smaller birds when the chance arose. The only vision of a distant Caribbean shore was mine. Yet my larger concept actually did reflect the truth of these babies' situation.

Oblivious as they were, our peregrines' survival depended on their being able to complete the enormous journey they had unknowingly set out upon. Yet, unfettered by the human burden of self-consciousness--of the future, of the slimness of their chances--as the day wore on, flying free and feckless across the fields of northern Mexico, they moved up toward the big Sierra Madre Oriental for the night.

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