“It’ll change your life.” This was said to me more than once by multiple people I’ve interviewed on this trip – Bud Anderson, Tom Cade, and other men who have worked with peregrine falcons all their lives. They were referring to the study of peregrines that has been taking place on South Padre Island in Texas for more than three decades.
And so I came. I happened to be back in Austin the first week of October, peak migration season for the peregrines, specifically Falco peregrinus tundrius, the northern birds that range across northern Canada and Greenland. The anatum falcons of New York only make smaller migrations, if they choose to move at all, but at this moment in the fall, the tundrius are peregrinating their way across the breadth of the Americas on their way to Argentina and Chile for the winter. Many of them, and I do mean many, pass over the sandy flats of South Padre. It provides an opportunity for study virtually unparalleled in North America.
South Padre is not known so much for its birds, but for a gathering of a more carnal type. This is where heaps of college students come for Spring Break, filling the hotels along the beach and proceeding to get drunk and naked. Usually in that order.
I only saw one naked woman, and she was well over twice as old as she might have been in college. She was walking along the beach smoking a cigarette, her small white poodle cowering in the shade under her large pick up truck, which was rigged up with a large striped umbrella. She’d parked along the shore further north on the 26-mile-long beach, miles beyond where the hotels, kite shops and paved road ended. The shore-side sand, in true Texas form, is a state highway, open to all traffic.
I caught her image quickly. I was flying by on a four-wheeler Honda ATV, trying to keep up pace with Gregg Doney, Alastair Franke and Mark Prostor, while we slalomed through the debris left behind from Hurricanes Dolly and Ike that had passed through the month before. All the salvageable lumber had been gleaned and what was left behind was the waste. The organic matter tossed up from the sea, but also the plastic jugs and plastic garbage cans, the plastic bottles and plastic parts that where once important for something but now have ended up here, severed from their utility, their shape unidentifiable. It was a mess.
We pulled hard to the left and left the waves and trucks and people behind. Into the wash, the dunes sheltering an endless expanse of flat sand that stretched inland toward Laguna Madre, a mile or four away depending on the tides and the wind that moves the land. We killed the loud engines and lifted binoculars to eyes as the quiet settled in. Immediately, we saw a distinct upright form standing on the sand.
It was the same form I have seen now on the stone formations of the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side and the wires of the Brooklyn Bridge. On a severe cliff face at the edge of Lake George in the Adirondacks. I have seen the 18” upright shape on the window ledge of a sugar beet factory in Boise, Idaho, Tom Cade and I standing in the light rain with our binoculars.
I spent the rest of the day following along with the men as they trapped the falcons, mostly yearling females, and collected the data they would need to test for avian flu and West Nile virus, to monitor their size and understand variance. They carefully drew blood for genetic studies, moving quietly and quickly to keep the birds calm. An ID band was cinched around a leg for future identification. None were already banded on the day I spent with them, but about 10% of the birds they catch are. One female from this season had been banded fifteen years earlier. “Think of the mileage that bird has on her,” Alistair said, amazed, and you could see him doing the multiplication in his head…more than 6,000 miles each spring and fall, for at least fifteen years.
Greg, used to working with peregrines in places like Colorado and Greenland, where they’re all on cliffs, looked out across the sand flats and up, as yet another falcon came into view. “You’ve got a vector there with cliff-nesting birds,” he said, looking up at the brilliant blue sky dappled with clouds, “but here they’re right on the ground. You’re in their world here.”
When the work on the bird was complete, she was daubed with temporary red dye so that she wouldn’t be caught again and then, they handed her to me to release. I held her in my hand, the steady warmth and weight of the wild heavier than the two or three pounds she would register on a scale. Her round dark eyes gauged me calmly and on the count of three, I let her go.