‘Twas out on the beach, and what did I see? ‘Twas a Peregrine Falcon, a’top the tree!
It’s fun when you head out onto the Holgate Refuge and can first make out the huge pole just past the main overwash in the midsection of the refuge. Long before you can tell what it is, you can still always distinguish a small, silhouetted lump atop the pole if a creature is perched up there. And no matter what it might be, you’re guaranteed to be a winner. Could be an Eagle, a Merlin, a Peregrine, a Snow Owl, or even a Northern Harrier up there. You always get a prize if there is a fuzzy dot atop that landmark pole in the distance.
This happened to me just the other day. As I approached the pole at a snail’s pace, my eyes stayed focused on the gift I could just barley discern on top of the pole. I plumbed the depths of my heart repeatedly, teasing myself to reveal what secretly I might most desire it to be, while also continually reminding myself it could be anything, and that it’s a gift, and to never be disappointed during the revelation of such a generous miracle.
And as I got closer, though I still couldn’t see the details, it was clear from the size and shape of the silhouetted profile that I’d won the wildlife lottery: it was a Peregrine Falcon.
No sooner than I’d managed to shout “Great Scott!” my gift swooped off the pole with astounding grace, and disappeared down the beach at lightening speed, chaotically striking at every bird in sight.
Strike one for me.
It was clear I had not intentionally harassed the animal. Yet the timing of his flight suggested my sudden appearance on the otherwise silent, empty beach was enough of annoyance to make it move on. The funny thing about Peregrine Falcon is that when they are disturbed during very silent and patient hunts, they will often make a kind of half-assed, Hail Mary attempt at catching whatever prey they were very patiently stalking at the time you ruined their game. Anyone who practices solitary hobbies on public beaches, like photography, or surfing, or even just enjoying a sunrise in peace, knows this well. If you have been slowly, patiently positioning yourself for a photo on an empty beach, or patiently passing up rides waiting for the perfect wave in a lineup of one, when suddenly a huge crowd of noisy people comes barreling towards you to join you, you will probably start snapping pictures, or grabbing that left, before the opportunity is gone. Peregrine Falcon do the same thing when they are deep in a silent hunt.
And so I knew I’d find this great gift again further down the beach where it was trying to find some peace and start the hunt again. So I upped the caution. And sho’nuff…
Now, assuming this animal was in the zone like you and I might be while catching a sunrise on an empty beach, I tried to keep some distance. But then… I saw them. The bands. This was a not just any Peregrine Falcon. This was an Ambassador: an Ambassador for the entire species. This was a banded Peregrine Falcon. This was a bird someone, somewhere, had really cared for. This was a bird all sorts of people would be thrilled to hear had been seen in the wild. I just had to read that band code, but it was simply not clear enough from my position.
And that’s when I made the totally amateur move of trying to, however slowly and quietly, reposition myself before I was absolutely certain I had the sharpest possible photo of the band I could get from my current position. It was a total noob maneuver. I know better, and I’m even embarrassed to be telling you this. And of course, the Peregrine flew.
I try to keep a strict “three strikes and you’re out” rule when it comes to disturbing any creature, people included, on the beach. Flush something once… well, stuff happens. We share a crowded planet. Flush something twice? I should probably be more cautious, more observant, and more respectful. But flush something three times? I’m obviously not in a good place. Three strikes and you’re out. Time to head home. Packing it in after disturbing the same animal three times has the double benefit of preventing any further disturbance, and also punishing ourselves which will, hopefully, remind us all to be better humans next time we’re out on the beach.
It was a beautiful day, and I wasn’t ready to head home. So I turned around and headed in the opposite direction letting the “Gift” alone.
Instead of chasing the Falcon, I sat myself at a popular Peregrine perch for the afternoon hoping it might return. This gave me plenty of time to review the single, sloppy, horribly blurry band shot I was able to get. It wasn’t a total disaster. I got a “B” and I got a “4”. As the hours went by, I researched the band. I was pretty sure I had “BD” which, combined with the “4” made it a good chance this was a 2nd year Peregrine from southwestern NJ. It would be highly unusual for it to be at Holgate. Now it was getting exciting.
When the sun set and the Peregrine had not returned, I was disheartened. Right at sundown, there were two Snowy Owls fighting and chasing each other in the air, which was adorable and thrilling, but even that could not make up for how badly I had botched that band reading. I was determined to return the next morning, with my three strikes reset, and try again.
A Snow Owl was just winding down for bed near a darkened Peregrine as I waited for the light to come. When day finally broke I would see one Peregrine, unbanded, then another, unbanded, and then….
And there he was. Right on a sign. While this Peregrine was clearly banded, the light was dreary, my camera was under exposed, and I just couldn’t read it in the field.
But when I got home and downloaded my photos, it was clear as day: “BE/40.” Not only could I be fairly sure this was the “Gift” from the previous afternoon, and that I’d redeemed myself, but that I also had an absolutely, positive ID. I reported the bird immediately and soon discovered it was banded at the Forsythe Refuge in the spring of 2018.
I was thrilled to be reporting this band. Finding and reporting Peregrine bands is my favorite part of the autumn. Sadly, I missed most of it because, amazingly, I was tied up working on project involving… wait for it… bird banding data.
If you are a photographer, birder, or wildlife enthusiast of any kind, and have any interest in conservation whatsoever, band sighting and reporting is probably one of the most important, actionable things you can do with your field time. Every sighting is absolutely precious and unbelievably valuable. Reading bands is difficult, time consuming, and can interfere with precious field time. I’ve missed many, many incredible scenes and pictures because I was trying to read the band code first, or sitting in the cold for an hour waiting for a bird to move its leg just so I could simply see if it was banded. It is not easy. In fact it is a burden. But it is kind of our duty. And it is an enormous gift to give. I promise you it is worth one-thousand times the effort and the sacrifice you make.
When you report a band sighting, you are making an enormous contribution to the species. Everything we know concretely about survival, movement, and so many things comes almost exclusively from band resightings. And there are just so few of them. Given the amount of people spending time out in the wild with these animals for photography each day, and the amount of banded bird photos you can find on social media, the amount of actual reported resightings is shamefully small. They are a huge piece of the puzzle, and their value to science and management simply can’t be overstated.
It is the gift that keeps on giving. Every resighting is an enormous contribution to the future of science, to the species, and to the health and safety wild animals everywhere. Our reported resightings have value forever, and pretty much become more valuable with each passing year as the data builds on itself thanks to our continued contributions.
And we are also giving an enormously meaningful, personal gift to the banders themselves, and the organizations involved with the banding of those birds. Some people see a banded a bird, think it is ugly, and imagine crazed, heartless scientists desecrating wildlife carelessly. But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is the opposite. Banding is an intimate pact, and a bond, between people who love and care for wild animals and the animals themselves. Whoever bands an animal, and shares that moment, is bonded to that animal for life, caring deeply about its future, forever.
When you report a band to the Bird Banding Lab, the info goes straight to the person who banded it. And those reports are some of the most exciting emails they will ever receive. No one cares about the fate of that animal more than the person who banded it. They held that wild beast! If you are lucky enough to report a Peregrine Falcon banded in Massachusetts, do not be surprised if you receive 3,000 words back from the great Tom French detailing not just everything about the banding, but the entire pedigree history of the animal back to the great grandparents and beyond! If you happen to report a Piping Plover banded by Michelle Stantial, know that she is weeping when she responds with an email containing no fewer than 50 exclamation marks as she tries to express her enthusiasm digitally. Reported a red banded osprey to Ben Wurst and you are likely to get a stellar photo from the banding back via email.
You are helping to tell the story of a very special animal when you resight. In many cases, a resighting might be the only thing we know about its life other than the banding record. We are writing half the book sometimes with a single report.
Ah yes, back to our “gift.” I remember BE40 clearly. He stood at the entrance of the Eyrie at Forsythe, screaming at us the entire time we were there last spring. Disturbing the Peregrine family, however quickly and cautiously, is the worst part of the banding. But I’d rather have them screaming at us, and demonstrating their Peregrine spirit, despite how helpless they are in our presence, then to see them cower in fear.
His sisters were bold too. They also shrieked at us, albeit pressed up against the back of the Igloo for safety. But BE40 was something very special.
Amazingly, I was there the day he, this “gift,” was banded, assisting Kathy Clark with her banding. In a very rare move, while I held BE40, she grabbed my camera and snapped a photo of yours truly with this very special bird. I obviously had no idea not only that I’d see him again one day, but that I’d be the first to report him in the wild!
I’m so happy to know you’re alive. And I’m grateful to myself for finding you, for taking the time to identify you, and for reporting you. Back to myself, as it were!
This is the first time BE40 has been reported alive since the day he was banded. Let’s hope it is not the last!
Merry Christmas. And this coming year, if you have the gear, make a resolution to find, record, and report at least one banded bird, of any species. It means so much. It’s also super fun.