Flying with Peregrines

People had followed falcons with light aircraft before, plotting their migration departures. But no one had kept on so far with a peregrine -- and never while being entirely possessed by the idea of staying aloft with it, no matter that telemetry equipment had to be swiped, that international borders had to be crossed without papers, and what authorities had to be eluded.

To go wherever our falcons' global journey might lead, I knew I was going to need an exceptional flyer -- whom I found in old time aviator George P. Vose.

Vose's and my time with the falcons began on Texas' Gulf Coast, where George's flying skills were immediately put to the test since our first telemetry tracking took us through dense coastal fog, swerving between radio beacon towers like a video game ship. For Vose, it was a sort of renewal -- a chance to show, after all these years, what he could still do with his old Cessna.

(Following his first job as a 20 year-old WW II flight instructor, Vose had graduated to membership in an elite fraternity of mechanic/pilots -- guys who went into remote crash sites, rebuilt a downed plane, then flew it out from a makeshift board runway.) Later the owner of a small flight school, when I met him, George was living in an aluminum trailer out in the West Texas desert next to the hand-built walls of an adobe house he'd been working on for years.

When I asked him to leave his job flying for the US Army and come track a peregrine, he thought I was the worst kind of half-baked bird nut.  Later, he told me he'd been right about that part, but was still glad he hadn't passed up the chance to take off again on the kind of long distance adventure aviation he'd made his name with.

For me, always a fearful flyer, every bit of Vose's derring-do was agony. In all our months airborne with the hawks there were probably no more than two or three days during which I didn't think, at some point, “This is it. We're going down!”

Other times, I'll admit, our problems were a riot. Arriving in Denver, George and I discovered that with just one wheel able to brake, we could only turn left. That meant we had to detour -- left turn following left turn, a squad of passenger jets waiting -- as we made our circuitous way around the airport's runways. Then there was the Rocky Mountain meadow we barely got out of by banking, halfway through take-off, down a narrow slot between its bordering Douglas firs; an ice storm in Montana; and the time our carburetor fell off high above a Canadian forest.

Much later, on the falcons' southern migration, Vose and I inadvertently landed our antenna-sprigged "spy" plane on a Mexican military base. Then, on a hidden airstrip in Central America we found ourselves looking down the barrel of drug smuggler's cocked .45.

The reason we went through all this goes back a long way. As a child I was fascinated by hawks soaring overhead. But that interest faded with visits to the caged birds of prey in our nearby zoo. Kept away from the sky, they were sullen and miserable. Then, when I was twelve, my Dad shot a hawk. Knocked it out of a tree at a hundred yards with an iron-sight Remington 22. My Dad, brother and I scrambled out of our canoe, but when my father stooped to pick up his prize, the hawk's eyes flamed back to life and it scythed a pair of long black talons all the way through both sides of his hand. He screamed and ripped out the claws but, even injured, the hawk was ready to fight again.

Nothing had ever stood up to my Dad. Not Blackie, his Angus bull; certainly not my brother or me. That sort of fearlessness -- combined with falcons' matchless aerial skills -- was what made them icons of reckless valor to each of the many societies that, for thousands of years, revered them.

And that's what that red-tail did for me. Standing on that long-ago riverbank, with all the determination of boyhood I resolved to keep its fierce golden eyes flashing -- forever -- in my sight.

Years later, after I'd become Co-Director of the Raptor Preservation Fund, with barns that sheltered dozens of hurt hawks, I'd sometimes still picture that gunshot young hawk, but compared to it the birds of prey around me were dulled: creatures of the sky whose injuries forever cut them off from their home. That's why the chance to take wing and travel with peregrines meant so much.

So much that it cost me the love of a fine woman. My girlfriend, Jennifer, though she had the good sense to know better, was nevertheless willing to go up with George and me. Was willing to fly in our decrepit little plane wherever our falcons led us... and was willing to accept going down together if it came to that. But I did not let her. I left her behind, waiting, for so long that when I finally lost the last peregrine's radio pulse and tried to come home, I found that my own migration had taken me too far away, and Jen was gone.

What had kept Vose and me on the wing, though, was that, after our initial enchantment at simply being able to follow a tundra falcon on its journey to the Arctic, during the falcons' autumn migration months later, a more specific objective had arisen. After crossing the Rio Grande into Latin America, why did so few young peregrines return to the Texas Gulf's barrier islands the following spring? The reason might simply be storms, bad weather, or scarce prey. But if it was something artificial -- of human or chemical origin -- then it was something that could be corrected.

What we found was miles-long chains of oil spillage ponds filled with residual sludge by the Mexican petroleum industry. These big reservoirs were enclosed by chemically saturated berms along whose shorelines wading birds stopped to feed, picking up toxin-laced invertebrates whose poisons, metabolically concentrated, were sure to pass up the food chain to the young falcons who found weakened shorebirds easy prey on the tanks' barren verges.

That's a very different end from the natural death every wild being inevitably faces. Caught in the jaws or talons of its customary predator, every adult bird or mammal dies a hero, its final struggle fought on the basis of its inborn defenses. Yet a creature brought down by the arrogance of mankind's indifferent technology is denied that valiant end and, like the coal miner's canary, becomes a beacon for what we are setting in store for our own, far from impregnable, lives.

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