Texas Falcon Tracker Finds Foul Environment
MARATHON, Texas Naturalist-adventurer Alan Tennant has tracked peregrine falcons across North America and does not like what he sees.
Pristine wilderness that was once the predator bird's natural habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate, even in remote places like northern Alaska, where oil company workers told him over the summer they hope soon to tap into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's like the Oklahoma Land Rush up there," he said in a recent interview.
Environmental destruction is something Tennant has become attuned to after his years of chasing falcons to learn more about their homes and habits.
Alfred A. Knopf recently published the book Tennant wrote On the Wing: To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon about his experiences trailing a female Tundra peregrine called Amelia (for Amelia Earhart) as she flew from her winter stopover on the Texas coast to her nesting grounds in the Arctic.
He also followed other peregrines on their southern migrations to Mexico and Central America, all in a well-used, single-engine Cessna airplane piloted by a crusty World War II pilot named George Vose.
Together, Tennant and Vose tracked birds who had been tagged with tiny transmitters as part of a U.S. military project to find out how falcons lived and died in an environment increasingly filled with toxic chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides. The army studied the falcons in hopes they would give clues to what may happen to humans facing the same toxins.
Peregrines were at the top of a food chain that was exposed often to the chemicals and had once been at the brink of extinction because of the now-banned pesticide DDT.
A life-long birder, Tennant had long had an obsession with "these amazing creatures," raptors whose telescopic vision, diving speed, and bravery in attacking birds four or five times their size made them the treasured pets of Arab sultans, Indian rajahs, and Japanese shoguns.
Chasing the Falcons
Meeting by chance on the U.S. Army's bird-tracking project on Texas' Padre Island in the mid-'80s, Tennant and Vose were both intent on chasing the falcons in his somewhat ramshackle Cessna Skyhawk before satellites and computers made their airborne telemetry irrelevant.
"We wanted to see what they saw, feel what they feel," Tennant said.
That was not always pleasant. Peregrine falcons had recovered from the DDT damage and bounced back in healthy numbers, but their environmental challenges are in some ways worsening.
From the air, Tennant and Vose saw the devastation caused by Mexican petrochemical dump sites and the ravages of paraquat defoliant in Guatemala, which apparently killed one of the falcons they followed. They also saw the ravages brought to the high plains by cattlemen.
"These early cattlemen didn't bring ruin to the plains by killing the buffalo and fencing in the Comanche," he writes in the book. "Unknowingly, they attacked the grassland itself, at its roots, and grass lives by its roots.... (The cattle) walked the prairie to death."
This summer Tennant discovered that Umiat, the town on Alaska's North Slope from which he tracked the Arctic falcons to their nesting sites along the Colville River, is now a toxic waste site: Effluent from oil drilling was dumped there through the '50s.
Falcons and other wildlife are "hit with the same things that we're hit by: the PCBs, all the agricultural spray insecticides. There's a much greater environmental assault overall than there was when the peregrines went down (in numbers)," Tennant said.
But Tennant said the falcons' peripatetic moving about makes it difficult to draw conclusions.
"They move so much that they're not so much of an environmental thermometer as everyone thought a canary in a coal mine. They go such distances; they can eat one poisoned seagull and fly a thousand miles and die, then you can't pinpoint the source," he said.
Not all the adventures during their falcon trips were in the air. Tennant and Vose "borrowed" the radio transmitter and scanner from the U.S. Army, had frequent mechanical mishaps with Vose's old plane, and were held at gunpoint by Mexican drug smugglers when they landed on one of their rural airfields.
Both men live in West Texas now, where Vose, still a flying instructor at 82, operates a commercial flying service from Alpine, Texas, and uses radio telemetry to track bears and quail.
Tennant, 61 and an avid bicyclist, has written several award-winning books on wildlife and nature. When not lecturing on nature, he lives in Marathon, Texas, just north of Big Bend National Park.
His falcon tales have already captured the attention of the reading public, putting On the Wing onto best-seller lists. It may even reach the silver screen. The story has been optioned by Robert Redford to be made into a film, Aloft, for National Geographic Feature Films. Redford plans to play Vose.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman