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The Edge Effect: Surfing with Peregrine Falcons in La Jolla

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 4, 2013
pp. 76-98 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0083

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In early June, I found myself trailing Will Sooter to his office. Past the University of California, San Diego, we turned a corner, then another, onto toney La Jolla Farms Road. Once this bluff-top tract was a horse ranch; now something quite different is farmed there. In my rental, I pulled up behind Will to a private gate with wood paneling. Will pressed the button on the speaker, talked into the air. Beep, the gate swung open. Beyond a porte-cochère was a five-bay garage, but we parked neatly off to the side. The place belonged to the CEO of a major technology company, and, needless to say, it was spacious and elegantly modern.

We'd come for the view. Around a corner, into the backyard, we crept—past the indoor bowling lanes, the home theater, the outdoor basketball court, the raked volleyball pit, the infinity pool—toward the ocean and Will's study site. A cement path draped down the head of the bluffs like a necklace, and at its middle hung a small patio, a pearl, the mother of all observation decks, with two silver lounge chairs. One need look no further for evidence of Will's gumption and charm, I thought, than the fact that he'd finagled the use of this spot to watch peregrine falcons.

"Look at this," said Will, raising his arms. "Look at my office. You know what? You can't pay for this."

Someone had, in fact, paid quite a lot. But I understood Will's sentiment. The ocean seemed less floor than wall. Far to the north, Dana Point and Orange County lay shrouded in haze; immediately to the south was the La Jolla Bay, over which green Mount Soledad rose. You could see the Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier jutting into the bay, and nearer, on the bluffs, the National Marine Fisheries Service building. Will had worked in both places as a biology technician after moving to San Diego in 1978. That was back when his house in Solana Beach, a few towns up the coast, was still on the edge of cultivated land and the coyotes chased home the neighborhood's dogs.

"Now I've got a job here," said Will with a touch of satisfaction and wonder. His face is round, full and slightly ruddy, his voice deep and lively. In his early sixties, he's balding and wears a hat to keep off the sun but is youthful in spirit, dedicated to staying so. Will is a lay ethologist, someone who studies animal behavior. As a kid, he dreamed of working with grizzly bears. Later, after earning a degree in natural resources from Cal Poly, he spent several years on the high seas surveying marine mammals. But now, each March he establishes what he calls "bio-synchronicity" with a pair of peregrines nesting on this bluff. Will lives on their time for five months straight.

He sees their first attempts at mating, knows when the eggs are laid. When the first "prey item" is carried to the nest, the eggs have hatched and it'll be about thirty-eight days until the first voracious eyass fledges. He knows when the peregrines haven't eaten for days and thus are likely to hunt. As we stood on the Black's Beach bluffs, he knew that this morning was the sixty-first of the young falcons' lives. The parents would be sick of them soon. And all along the way, Will takes rather spectacular photographs of everything he observes.

The chic home behind us was still being built when Will first sought access to the bluff. "The supervisors were suspicious of me," he says. "They thought I might be a city employee who had come to spy on the construction. Then I sent them a couple of my photos of the falcons." The owners generously gave him permission to come and go atop the 300-foot cliff, which is primo falcon viewing: the birds wing past at eye level or below and pose on the outermost knobs of the West Coast. Far down, pelicans glide in wobbly V's. Surfers drift in...

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