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On the Wing
To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon
Written by Alan Tennant

On the Wing
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Category: Nature
Imprint: Knopf
Format: Hardcover
Pub Date: September 2004
Price: $25.00
Can. Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-375-41551-7 (0-375-41551-3)
Pages: 320
Also available as an eBook and a trade paperback.


EXCERPT

 
1.
PARTNERS

Trailing steady electronic beeps from the tiny transmitter glued to the base of her tail feather, the peregrine quartered tentatively up Padre Island's barrier beach. A tundra falcon, a barren-ground hunter born in the Arctic, she had for the past two weeks cruised with increasing randomness up and down Texas's offshore islands, seemingly reluctant to leave the windswept flats for the alien greenery of the mainland. But today the springtime stream of tropical air welling in from the Gulf of Mexico had gripped her in its northerly flow, and after a final sideways cast along the surf she swept inland, away from the sea.

"She's migrating," called Janis Chase, the military attaché in charge of our radio-tracking flight. "I think she's on her way!"

From 2,000 feet up, in the rear seat of our single-engine Cessna Skyhawk I watched the Gulf Coast's shoreline dunes give way to bluestem pasture, and gradually the magnitude of what we'd chanced upon sank in. With no companion, guided only by the ancestral memory she somehow carried within, our little hawk was staking her life. Nothing like the abstract idea of migration that I'd imagined, it was humbling even to be a spectator to the mortal intensity of what the tiny, determined speck below was doing. On that sunny coastal morning she was committing every ounce of will and spark of force that flowed inside her to a race toward home. I tried to imagine what could be going on behind her fierce eyes. Some inner vision, I guessed: a tucked-in cliffside ledge, set above the tundra, with long-unseen domestic details of surrounding rock and bluff-face. Maybe its sounds, too: the whistle of arctic wind, and in the suddenly still air, familiar birdsong, the croak of ravens, or the scream of rough-legged hawks nesting nearby. No one would ever know what she thought, but it was clear that as we watched, something had swirled to life within the soul of this falcon, becoming the driving force of her entire being.

At the time, during the mid-eighties, it was thought that she would travel northwest from Texas, seeking the high-altitude passes of the Rockies, then work her way up the spine of the Continental Divide. But only she knew the route she would really take, or where it might eventually lead. And only she would ever know if that knotted force of will-the power that was now sweeping her along at mile-a-minute speeds-would be enough to carry her there. Enough to lift her up, buoy her over the third of the planet that lay to the north, and then deliver her, perhaps weeks from now, onto the coal-shale crags of the Arctic. There, more than 3,000 miles from this humid Texas plain, on some late spring day the ledge where she herself was born might once again appear beneath her wings.

"That's enough," Chase ordered our pilot, George Vose. "I've got my departure vector; it's all we need."

Chase bent to her U.S. Army Chemical Warfare clipboard, whose logsheet had a heading for "Migration Route." On it she recorded the date, the weather, and the north-by-northwest compass heading that this falcon, the last of seventeen transmitter-bearing peregrines she had been assigned to monitor, had chosen as it left the Gulf's barrier islands. While Janis wrote, for a few more minutes Vose flew on. I could see that-even though we knew her mostly from her relayed transmitter signal-it was hard for him to leave that flickering speck of brown below, now embarked on a lonely quest toward her unknown, almost inconceivably distant home.

Then Janis looked up and motioned for George to turn. Reluctantly, I felt, he banked us slowly around, descending across the bay to Cameron County Airfield and what had suddenly become a far smaller world.

Smaller because, even with my daily chance to capture and band peregrines as a visiting helper attached to a peregrine research team, seeing the metamorphosis that migration had brought about in one of the falcons whose kind I'd watched, and even captured on the tidal flats, was astonishing. Afterward, Padre's peregrines were no longer simply beautiful raptors to be lured in for banding. They were part of something larger. Something ancient and powerful. Global as the tides, though at the moment all I could think of for comparison was gazing, as a kid in the Port of Houston, at ocean-going tankers from Liberia, freighters from Singapore and Seoul, Buenos Aires and Dakar-places I knew about but never hoped to see.

What was frustrating was that it was clear we had not really needed to turn back. With our powerful military receiver I was sure we could have gone farther: just kept on, maybe for days, aloft with one of these radio-tagged falcons.

But neither Janis nor her tightly managed military program would ever make that choice. Chase had been assigned only to determine what percentage of the arctic peregrines, Falco peregrinus tundrius, that migrated up from the Tropics every spring then traveled northeast from the Gulf Coast. Presumably toward the cliffs of Greenland, most of these continued on. Others went west, maybe to Alaska. As only a falcon-trapper's helper, with no role at all in Chase's study, I was lucky to have maneuvered my way onto even a single radio-tracking flight, and though I desperately wanted to go up again, Janis's program already had its data. She was scheduled to move on to another assignment, and today was her last mission.

Maybe, I offered, I could keep flying with Vose-a long, silver-topped column of a man people took for Janis's dad-filing more logbook statistics. But Janis made it clear that after she left Padre the Army wasn't leaving its sophisticated radio-tracking gear with anyone. Especially, I gathered, with either George or me.

Though the military had rented Vose's little plane, to the project's buttoned-down young administrators George hardly could have offered a less compatible job profile. As a World War II combat flight instructor, a generation older than even the parents of his Army supervisors, he'd logged more wartime military years and on-the-edge long-distance, light-plane aviation hours than all his bosses put together. But beyond his occasional mention of his barnstorming years, none of them knew anything about Vose's past, since they'd hired him principally because he was the only telemetry-experienced pilot willing to accept the low-paying charter Janis had to offer.

George's penchant for talking freely about his work also meant he was seen almost as a security risk, and I'd heard among the close-cropped young officers who ran the Army's program that it was necessary to keep a close eye on him, though I couldn't imagine what kind of security breach his tracing the migration route of endangered birds of prey might entail.

I didn't rate even that much attention. A lifelong naturalist, birder, and writer of herpetology texts, I was no more than the friend of one of the program's directors, Kenton Riddle of the University of Texas's Bastrop Science Center. I had managed to hitch a ride on the radio-tracking plane only because storm's had flooded the mudflats where we trapped the Army's study peregrines. But after that first flight I couldn't get the falcons' journeys out of my mind, and when Chase left Texas two days later, I saw her onto the flight back to Patuxent, Maryland, then drove over to Laguna Vista Airfield. Vose was stitching up the sagging cloth of his Cessna's headliner.

"Customs men," he grumbled. "United States Customs. Slipped out while I was doing their durn paperwork and cut up my plane. Looking for drugs."

He poked his needle into one side of a long slit.

"Wouldn't put it past 'em not to make sure they found some, too."

I examined the Army's yard-long, Christmas-tree-shaped antennas, which George had cobbled onto the Skyhawk's wing struts using hollowed-out chunks of 2 ¥ 4 and a snarl of radiator-hose clamps. A little scary, but with no pilot's license-never having even flown a plane, of which I was semi-terrified-I wasn't in a position to be choosy.

"Ever think about keeping on?" I asked him. "Just stay up there with one of these falcons?"

Vose said he'd thought about it. A lot. He had even followed some, over longer distances with earlier researchers, and with Janis. He jerked his thumb at the Cessna's backseat, where three Army radio transmitters lay swaddled in bubble wrap.

"Still got some radios. . . . But what I'm saying is, this little Army deal's just nothing. Not even real aviation."

It took Vose more than a moment to swing his big frame down from the plane, but he wasn't finished.

"Lemme tell you. . . . After the War, one of the things I did for a living was go into crash sites. Just one helper. Build us a board runway, right on the ground: eighty yards long. Then we'd mechanic that aircraft back together and fly it out."

He looked at me closely.

"Certainly I could keep on after one of these little things."

I raised my brow.

"Clear across the country?"

George put down his needle and fishing-line thread.

"Any country in the world-falcons only average fifty or sixty miles an hour."

Anywhere in the world. I took a breath. Vose couldn't know it, but since our first flight, the idea of following one of these creatures, wherever its airborne life might lead, had become the grandest idea I'd ever had.

George shook his head.

"Military won't approve it," he said. "They're waiting for a satellite-due out sometime in the nineties-that can track these little transmitters." I pictured an electronic warren, glowing with data screens and keyboards, where some technician sat, coolly plotting the intercontinental flights of real flesh-and-blood peregrines as they streaked from tropic jungle to arctic steppe. By then, Vose and I and his little Cessna would be irrelevant.

Yet for a while now we still had a chance to be of consequence. If what George said was true, we really could go up with a peregrine, fly with it, and, while mystery still cloaked its realm aloft, share the primeval momentum of its dream, or instinct, or simple fancy.

I just didn't know how much any of that might mean to Vose.

He was an aviator, not a bird guy, so maybe not much. But he had definitely been disinclined to let that first peregrine go. That and not having to watch from the sidelines as his share of aviation dwindled into technological irrelevance might-just possibly, I hoped-be enough to draw him into what was becoming my own overwhelming vision.

In any case, it was now or never. I took another breath.

"How about . . . well, why not try it on our own?"

George put his sewing gear back in the toolbox.

"These birds are protected; some of 'em endangered. Army'd never give us permission. . . ."

I looked dead at him.

"Of course they wouldn't."

Vose turned away, and I was sure I'd lost him. I had barely met him, and there was absolutely no reason for him to defy his military employers in favor of a semi-illicit trip with me.

For a while he studied the Skyhawk's stitched ceiling, which now resembled Frankenstein's forehead. Then, in the same careful way, he looked me over, stroking his mustache. It was thin, white, and pointy-Errol Flynn style-a holdover from his adventure-flying days.

"Aviation takes intestinal fortitude, Mister. You were pretty green up there today. Calm air, too."

From a battered leather suitcase George dug a roll of orange surveyor's ribbon.

"I don't do this," he explained, draping the pointed prongs of the Army antennas with florescent streamers, "somebody'll kill themselves and sue me." He looked over. "Can't think why you'd want to follow a falcon in the first place."

Want to? Follow a peregrine, maybe all the way to its polar breeding ground? No one had ever done such a thing. But I was talking to the one man in the world who could.

I caught George's eye.

"Same reason you'd want to," I said.

Above the Skyhawk, big white cumulus were building, and to avoid each other's gaze we both looked up at them.

"Go," I said, "where no one's ever gone."

"Ever known how to go," growled Vose.

But I could see his doubts. I was some kind of bird nut: no idea what kind of down-and-dirty flying my idea called for. Still, paying jobs in aviation didn't come often to a guy in his sixties. Late sixties. Bad knees, shaky hands. Gin-and-tonic more often than every now and then. Plus, this Army deal wasn't just discouraging; to a real flier it was almost an insult.

"We'll never get this chance again," I said.

Vose scuffed a foot.

Just barely, I could see a crinkle crease the corners of his pale blue eyes. He stepped back from his ribbon-draped antennas, stowed the roll of tape, and rooted through his leather case. Finally he pulled out a black plastic garbage bag.

"Here," he said, pointing at his throat. "Buy you some of these. Just in case."

At my grin he darkened.

"Now we're only doin' this, Mister, no more'n a couple days. Tops."

2.
PADRE

Forty-eight hours later, gassed and as ready as its rattling old motor was ever going to be, Skyhawk '469 sat by the flight shack at Cameron County Airfield. I already knew my new partner would be inside swapping stories with anybody who even looked like they might have once flown a plane, while he waited for me to call and report that I'd captured a peregrine falcon and put one of these leftover Army transmitters on it.

Not that I was very likely to. I was camped up at the far end of the barrier island, smack in the path of the tundra falcons' spring migration route, but so far I'd mostly just watched as Ken's trappers captured peregrines. I had studied the team's trapping equipment, though, and since I'd hooked up with Vose I'd made my own rough copies. But I still wasn't sure exactly what to do with them.

The biggest problem was that during three days alone on the flats I had seen nothing resembling a peregrine. Then, before first light on the fourth morning, I smelled the mainland. I'd been on Padre long enough to know that meant an onshore wind was pushing out from the coast, ahead of a late-spring cold front. Soon, rain would force the shorebirds into the shelter of the reeds, and the falcons would press for an early kill while their prey was still exposed.

It was their way. Fierce wild spirits so briefly seen as to seem more apparitions than real birds of prey, peregrines hunt at the edges of the day, when their enormous, light-gathering pupils give them an edge over small-eyed wading birds unable to fly well before first light. Seldom relaxing like other hawks in idle floats across sunny summer clouds, Padre's peregrines hid in the diminished perspective of distance, hanging far away, on the air, or crouched on the remote, empty flats, picking out prey birds with the uncanny acuity of their binocular vision. Then, concealed in the dimness of dawn or dusk, with a rush of their long wings they would come flaring in, cutting open a sudden tumult of waders flailing into the air, then forever shutting off for one of them the open sky and the hiss of its companions' panicked wings.





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