Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Avian Garden: Peregrine on the Beach


            The peregrine falcon escapes me again. I wake listless and without enthusiasm. Later, some way recovered, I go down to the salt marsh in search of the falcon, a great big bird perched in a skinny tree, but the bird has absconded. This time I have my camera. He must have known I was coming. (Photo borrowed from the web.) 
            The bird first made an impression on me a couple of weeks ago when we saw him on the sand at Wollaston Beach. A rather thin strand of beach with the tide up high, and some of the ice from one of our cold spells scattered at the various wrack lines of wind and tide. He was easy to spot because two photographers were already paying him considerable attention. They were good enough to stay far enough away not to drive the bird away from the sight of the rest of us. Anne and I were the only other passersby who stopped to look.
            The bird, grayish winter coat, large head and beak, appalling killer eye, barred a lighter color, some beige maybe, across the breast, was finishing a measured repast of something that, judging from the feathers at its feet, had once also been a bird itself. Now it was lunch.
            The bird did not appear disturbed by the two men, one of whom stood on the sand and had settled in for a good, long observation. This one was obscured behind an enormous photographic enterprise. Tripod supporting a barrel lens so long it looked like some sort of new weaponry, something between a flare gun and a mortar. I have no idea what it looked like to the falcon.
            Nothing happened while we watched. The man behind the camera on the sand may have been focusing, massaging his lens, waiting for just the right light, waiting for the bird to do something special: raise a wing and give him the finger with his claws, maybe. I wouldn't want anyone to watch me stand over the remains of a meal of feathers and airy bones, gull maybe. Our beach has plenty of gulls to spare.
            The other man, young, quiet, with the intensity of birders who do not appear to wish to share the experience, held a good looking but more modest-sized camera. I presume he'd already taken his shots.
            Since I didn't know what kind of amazing bird these two were staring at -- I thought it might an osprey because of its impressive size, and because an osprey had blissfully ignored our staring in Florida last spring -- I asked this man what kind of bird it was. He spared me a word: "Peregrine."
            This is what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an impressive online source, says about this creature. "Peregrine Falcons are the largest falcon over most of the continent, with long, pointed wings and a long tail. Be sure to look at shape as well as size—long primary feathers give the Peregrine a long-winged shape. As with most raptors, males are smaller than females, so Peregrines can overlap with large female Merlins or small male Gyrfalcons."
            I said, "I didn't know the peregrine was so big."
            Their measurements are given in centimeters. To the best of my conversion ability, they can be two feet long. The wingspan is between thee and five feet. Simple translation: they're big.
            Two days ago I saw him (or her) again, on a brittle-cold steel-gray afternoon when I was feeling so bad about my decision to take a walk that I was already contemplating turning back after a hundred yards. I looked up at the thin bare trees between the side street and the salt marsh, thinking, well I'll never see anything moving in there today when there was the big, gray, roundish mass of raptor.
            Peregrine, I said, why don't I ever have my camera when we meet?
            I was about a dozen feet away from his tree. He was up in a branching about fifteen feet from the ground, singularly uninterested in my presence.
            I came back the following afternoon, the day not much warmer, with the camera in my pocket. I saw a jay in the tree. No peregrine.            

                               Peregrine

The bird sits in his tree with a deadly eye upon the world
It has nothing to lose
It is, not the Stoic we sometimes imagine,
But Epicurean, pursuing happiness
Death is nothing to you, bird
Happiness, or its pursuit, is all we ever have

The falcon stands on the sand of Quincy Shore
Feathers of its prey at his feet, or claws
Gull, maybe. It pursues medium-sized birds, I read
I pursue large ones
Two men take its photograph,
One with the world's longest telescope lens
Other birds flee us
Peregrine stays for lunch

Days later, a cold week feels longer,
I find him again, perched not very high
in a tree neither tall, nor far from the road
None can see you, bird
You are safe with us
We're the killers here
One day you will take us to
 Bird Spirit Land