It took a few moments for the brighter, calmer mood to permeate the tiny butler’s kitchen at the back of the 23rd Penthouse Floor of the Atlantic Club. But once it it did, the good feeling was only amplified by its stark contrast to the dangerous chaos of Kathy’s walk along the ledge outside the window just moments before, and the spooky, melancholic nostalgia of the tour through the abandoned Casino earlier that morning.
On a normal banding mission that critical moment when you have an unpredictable wild animal in hand is the most thrilling and stressful part of the whole thing. But in this most unusual case, the sweet simplicity of holding this beautiful, healthy, and feisty little PEFA was a welcome relief and a chance to catch an emotional breath.
“Do you want to hold her for me?” asked Kathy.
“Unh nuh. Ramona should do the honors,” I replied.
When we had first arrived at The Atlantic, Ramona was visibly excited as she came to greet us. Like many people who have the incredibly good fortune to work in a building with nesting Peregrine Falcons, Ramona had developed a modest case of classic raptor-holism. Within moments of meeting us, she eagerly pulled out her cellphone to show us a video of Lady Katherine feeding her new foster baby some of Atlantic City’s finest, artisan pigeons; a video she took a few days previous when she snuck away to the 23rd floor while on break, just to see what these magnificent creatures might be up to… and probably to bask in the incredible life force they fill the 23rd floor of this otherwise desolate building with. I would imagine that Lady Katherine’s penthouse nest is like an oasis for the last few people still working at The Atlantic. An oasis of life. If I worked there I surely would be continually making excuses to go to the 23rd floor… both to visit Lady Katherine, and to knock out a few tunes on Sinatra’s piano.
Ramona is one of the many unsung heroes of New Jersey wildlife, taking the time observe, to report on, to care for, and to enjoy our creatures. As much as I wanted to hold this preciously warm and fuzzy baby monster, there was just no way I was going to steal this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from Ramona. Besides, I needed to focus for a bit. I just could not get settled or oriented in this strange netherworld I currently found myself in. The enormous and eerie environment of loneliness, hopelessness, loss, and decay that The Atlantic Club had become over the years was almost perfectly balanced by the vital forces of life, of hope, and of determination emanating from Kathy Clark and from these two Peregrine: one in Ramona’s arms and the other watching our every move through the window. Three creatures with such large and powerful spirits, they basically overwhelmed the 23 floors of nothingness and void that contained them. Such is the power of the PEFA I suppose. And such is the power of Kathy Clark.
“Look at that,” marveled Kathy as she watched Ramona’s video earlier. “Look at her eat. Look at how easy it is for both of them. No fighting, no struggling… Mom’s just putting food in her mouth… she is a lucky bird. They both are.”
The first factor nudging a Peregrine to lay four eggs in a crowded nest area is to have some sort of backup. Any one of the eggs in a clutch could be a dud, so better to lay a bonus egg or two and spread the odds. Peregrine Falcon are smart, practical creatures after all. But should Lady Luck strike and all four eggs hatch successfully in a Peregrine’s cramped eyrie, it can make life difficult, even impossible, for the whole family. It takes an awful lot of pigeons to feed a family of six. Siblicide is not uncommon. And as they grow, the young Peregrine need room to stretch their wings and develop their leg strength, if they are to live to tell the tale of the first time they leapt off that building, that cliff, that bridge, or that tower. It takes more than just sheer will and determination to fly.
Kathy had been recently alerted about a new Peregrine nest in Atlantic City, on a water tower just up the street from The Atlantic. It was discovered only when its fledglings were found dead on the street below after their first leap from a confining little nest, one their parents had carelessly chosen, in which these fledglings had sat motionless for six weeks.
Earlier in the spring, Kathy had identified a crowded, four chick site to select a foster for Lady Katherine from. The Peregrine nest at the old ATT station in Manahawkin had successfully hatched all four of their eggs, right here in my own backyard. While it sounded like a perfect candidate for Lady Katherine’s foster chick, I still couldn’t help but wonder how one goes about making the difficult decision of which specific precious, baby monster to snatch, and therefore radically alter the life of. It can’t be easy.
“It was easy,” offered Kathy. “I asked Ben to do it.”
I felt like a home wrecker 😦 ~ Ben Wurst
“I felt like a home wrecker” was how Ben described sneaking up the tower and stealing the precious nestling from the nest box.
“How did you choose?” I asked.
“I took the big one. The one on the top!”
Ben Wurst is smart, sensible, tough, and experienced when it comes to managing raptor families. So if even someone like Ben could be instinctively moved to anthropomorphize the situation, and see the disruption of the family life of these Peregrine through the human lens, then you know it had to have been a woeful errand; even for a guy whose life’s work is often a non-stop series of woeful errands.
You could try to take comfort in the almost certain fact that now the entire family will have an exponentially increased shot at living full, healthy lives. Or you can remind yourself that Kathy’s work here is of benefit to the entire future of the species; from perfecting a technique for saving countless Peregrine from currently doomed nests under unsuitable bridges, for example, and for understanding the recovery options if we ever destroy the species again through accidental environmental catastrophe. Whatever the case, you’re still kind of stuck as because no matter what you think, you still can’t explain any of this to the poor Peregrine mom & dad who are freaking out because they assume Ben just ate one of their precious babies.
As Kathy headed back out the window to re-give Lady Katherine this beautiful gift for the second time this spring, I slumped against the door trying my hardest not to sob in front of my hero, Kathy Clark. Physically my heart was pounding in the very present awareness that I was living in the midst of the most profound, meaningful, and thrilling adventure I’ve encountered in the long series of adventures I’ve had since that fateful day my daddy said “Hey Junior, I hear they are seeing Peregrine Falcon around the Island.”
Emotionally, I was crushed when, just as my heart swelled to its maximum capacity for joy, excitement, and understanding, from deep inside, I suddenly recognized that my deepest desire, my most complete joy, would be to call him later and tell him all about it. To write him a Reading so he could see… to see this profound place, these magnificent creatures, these amazing people, and most of all, to scream, “Look Dad! It’s me! I’m up here on top of the world! I found your Peregrine!” To give back all of the glorious gifts he gave me, through all of those tiny, golden nudges, over all of those years. I wanted him to see the enormous tree, 23 floors tall, home to the indescribably fascinating creatures he had told me about, which, as far as my experience goes, all grew from the tiny seeds of goodness, of knowledge, of passion, of fun, of joy that he had been sprinkling around my world so tirelessly, for so long.
The panic of this realization was as real as if someone had just climbed into my nest and taken my precious baby from me. The resulting emptiness felt as vast and pointless as an abandoned casino in America’s Playground; its irreversible reality as sad and haunting as an infertile Peregrine nearing the end of her life.
But that was only a moment. For before I could fully digest these realizations in my heart, Lady Katherine would zoom past the window at enormous speeds, going straight for Kathy as she worked her way carefully along the ledge to place the swaddled and banded foster baby Eloweezy back in the nest box. She ripped my awareness back outside of myself to the incredible scene taking place all around me. Somehow Kathy, Eloweezy, and Lady Katherine were refusing to allow me to dwell inside and allow my heart to become itself infertile, abandoned by its many joys planted there by father. They were commanding my attention with their amazing story and, in doing so, filling my heart with the new, and nudging me towards the future. It was all so… magnificent.
It was a beautiful drive up Route 9 to Brigantine. Kathy had decided to head up there to do a quick check of the recently hatched chicks at the Peregrine tower along Wildlife Drive. It was a beautiful morning and Brigantine was the perfect place to decompress after a morning in Atlantic City. An antidote.
When it came time to part, we stood against our cars in the parking lot, talking for another hour or so about all manner of fascinating subjects. We spoke of animals, family, photos, technology, fake eggs, bird lice, the past, and always most interesting, the future.
When the conversation finally returned to the experience we had just shared at The Atlantic, I offered my conclusion:
“Strange as it sounds, the thing I will remember most about this morning is how strongly I felt that I was meant to be there. That I was supposed to be there. That my whole life had been leading me to that roof, and to those few moments.”
That got Kathy’s full attention. Her head titled slowly to the side, her eyes widened, gaze intensified, and her light conversational smile morphed into to the serious expression of someone about to say something that she really, really means:
“I’m really glad to hear you say that,” she replied. “Because I’ve been feeling that way myself recently. All the time.”
I’d bet you have, Kathy Clark. I’d bet you have.