The real dream, I saw again, had been ours. The vision by joining our peregrines' ancient journey we could somehow become part of what Edward Abbey called the heroism and grandeur of life, the hidden struggle of the million avian lives that, all around us, were enduring what it would seem could not be endured...
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It was a testimony to the optimism of life itself, and it was what Delgada (a skinny female peregrine), even lost in the paraquat forest, and Gorda (a healthier one), now flown out to sea, had given George and me.
It was the mid eighties and peregrine falcon migration remained a thrilling, but troubling mystery to people who were determined to save the noble birds from extinction. Not until 1993 would the migrating peregrines be tracked by satellite. Alan Tennant, a nature lover extraordinaire and multi-award-winning author from Texas, desperately wanted to try to track a banded peregrine as he or she took off for its ancestral home and he found his chance with seventy-something George Vose, a World War II vet who now did telemetry (radio tracking) for the U.S. Army with his old Cessna Skyhawk 469. Disgruntled as Vose was with the prospect of soon being irrelevant to them and being enraptured with flying, he wasn't too difficult to convince in setting out with Tennant.
First, though, as Tennant amusingly describes in the 2004 book On The Wing: To The Edge of the Earth With the Peregrine Falcon, our author had to catch a healthy peregrine and attach an illegal Army transmitter on her or him. He takes off for Padre Island's Intercoastal Waterway on his Honda ATV with unsuspecting pigeons along for peregrine bait. Hopefully he could save them from the birds' deadly talons. It's not a job for amateurs, to put it briefly, and he wondered if George would still be waiting for him when accidentally overturning the ATV nabbed him a female falcon. George was and eager.
With this young bird named Amelia after Amelia Earhart, they kept abreast of her signal until the Texas Panhandle where they lost her for the next two thousand miles, I believe. It was sheer determination and craziness that kept them following blindly the path they believed she'd take. I remember how ecstatic they were when her signal cheeped loud and clear around Denver and how impressed they were with how she navigated around it, but finally they had to sadly tell her good-bye when, illegally having entered Canada, she brought them to the edge of the vast boreal forest spanning from British Columbia to Newfoundland where beyond stretched unbroken tundra for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Midpoint in his real-life story, Tennant had more peregrines to track with Vose going the opposite direction through Mexico dressed as Texas Highway Patrol (not taking chances they design a phony letter from the Mexican president that fools a two-star general and stick Postal Service insignia to their suspiciously antennae-d plane) and through the corridor of hawks into Belize and Ambergris (not Guatemala), but not until the book's third and final section. In between Tennant hangs out in Alaska's wilderness hoping to discover Amelia. It's not nearly as much fun and death-defying.
I certainly can't fault the author for his knowledge of peregrine rescue efforts then or nearly any animal, but though many times he describes what he observes, I haven't heard of half of the species he could effortlessly identify. While his focus revolves around peregrines (tundrius and anatum) and other birds of prey (ever hear of an aplomado?), he regales us about sand hill cranes, golden plovers, snakes, "the Belizean Jane Goodall" Sharon Matola and her projects, ancient Mayan civilization, wooly mammoth bones he and Ken Riddle once found, the 65-million year-old asteroid crater that helped us to evolve and more. It's as much about the joy of flying for him and George, as well as its terrors and frustrations, as it is gazing at phenomenal flying by birds. Once a revolver is stuck in their faces.
In a way On The Wing was disappointing because Amelia was never tracked down in Alaska, Delgada died from paraquat spraying, Gorda flew out to sea probably to die, and Anukiat (a tiercel or male) was never quite found. Conservationist Tennant explains in his long Epilogue how oil drilling has destroyed much of the peregrine's habitat in Alaska and that DDT was only the first toxic chemical discovered to affect their ability to raise offspring.
Mostly I did revel in the obsessive nature of this book because it carried me to exotic places, taught me more about peregrines and so many other things, and was written so compellingly and with sensitivity by a guy who just wasn't willing to go down with the 469 like George was. It's a good-natured, accessible book for bird/nature lovers who can enjoy a couple of renegades fighting to stay alive while tracking contrary, endlessly fascinating peregrines, yet never actually spying their girls or the little guy. There's a welcome photo section, but doesn't show the ones they tracked.
Tennant won the Southern Book Award, Western Books Award and a best nonfiction award from the Texas Institute of Letters for The Guadalupe Mountains of Texas.
This is another entry in the Texas-Sweden write-off. For more entries please see http://www.epinions.com/user-texas_swede .
It's also another entry in my Peregrine Ten write-off to celebrate my ten years on this site. Please see my profile for the link.