The Edge Effect

Surfing with Peregrine Falcons in La Jolla. From The Missouri Review 36.4, Winter 2013. Listed as a notable essay in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014Photo album below.

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 tony 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 old Fish and Wildlife building. Will had worked in both places as a biology technician after moving to San Diego in 1978. That was back when his bungalow 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 sixty-year-old face is round, full, and slightly ruddy, his voice deep and lively. 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 February 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-five days until the voracious eyasses fledge. 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 owners were suspicious of me,” he says. “They thought I might be a city employee that had come to spy on the construction. Then I sent them a couple of my photos of the falcons.” He was generously given permission to come and go atop the three-hundred-foot cliff, which is primo falcon viewing: they 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 the clustered waves. The falcon’s nest, or eyrie, is tucked out of sight on a ledge a hundred feet below us.

From New York City, I’d caught wind of Will’s work, which has garnered the attention of falcon enthusiasts and biologists alike. In his photos, the reward for his years on the job is clear: Frozen in flight, the birds are angular dancers, acrobats, family about to embrace. The intricacies of their interactions are revealed. So I rang Will up, and he invited me out to California. “Any time,” he said. A few months later, I worked a San Diego layover of several days into a trip to San Francisco.

Read more via Project Muse if you have access.

Check out Will Sooter’s website for more information on his work and truly wonderful images of the falcons (beware of the anthemic music).