Clang clang, clang clang.
The rhythmic thumping of the bungee cord’s metal hook against the hollow rung of the aluminum ladder was like a processional snare transforming my march out to the Bonnet Island peregrine tower into something of a parade. The wind, its chaotic drum master, alternating the mood between triumphant, celebratory tones and an eerier, more mournful, dirge-like pace; all together the perfect accompaniment to the increasingly random collection of divergent fantasies racing through my mind, each more intricate and vividly real than the last, accelerating and intensifying with each passing step through the mud.
A fitting soundtrack to the immense uncertainty and anxious anticipation of such a moment as the first nest check of the BOIS tower for the 2021 season.
Clang clang, clang clang.
I try; I really do. I try so hard to remain calm, focused, to stay centered, keep an open mind, to relax, remain alert, to just be… ready for anything. Yet no sooner have I consciously reminded myself to have no expectations and to simply observe carefully without judgement, when the haunting memories of past tragedies again begin to fill me with sickening dread, while visions of a vibrant summer full of healthy, fledgling peregrine flood me with hope; each hijacking my awareness in equal measure, and leading it away to all sorts of places but the one where I really, really need to be to know the truth: this present moment, focused on what is right in front of me.
Clang clang, clang clang.
As I near the tower, the sound suddenly becomes like the gong of enlightenment itself, bringing me instantly back to the urgency of the real world, while also reminding me of its own utility. I join in and begin banging on the ladder with my one free hand.
CLANG CLANG CLANG! “Yoo hoo, Jo Durt! I’m coming up there!” I shout through the wind straight up to the igloo above. It’s a trick I learned from the great Kathy Clark. “I’d rather surprise them before I get to the top of the tower ,” she once taught me. The unimaginable fortitude and patience required for incubating eggs can put a bird in an almost trance-like state. I’m glad I didn’t learn this lesson the hard way; by being smacked in the face by a suddenly panicked peregrine when I peeked into its igloo; or worse, by causing one to stomp her delicate clutch of eggs in a desperate attempt to flee imminent and unexpected disaster.
So for good measure I gave a final warning with one last beat of the aluminum drum, and then, silence.
For just one, brief moment my mind became quiet, empty, and free, as I saw the first falcon come silently gliding in from the marsh and up over the tower, straight towards me. This stillness was almost immediately shattered by a smile, a rush of joy, and a single thought. “Bridgeboy!”
And clang clang, clang clang, I heard the drum beat again, only now as if announcing the arrival of the King.
But no peregrine had come out from the igloo. And that’s when a second peregrine flew in unexpectedly from the direction of the Causeway bridge. It began circling overhead, just as silently, along with the other.
It was the last time I’d notice the sound of the bungee cord banging against the ladder.
This couldn’t be good. Jo Durt and Bridgeboy should have a full clutch of eggs by now, and one them should have been in that igloo incubating. Their silence was far more deafening than the screams they should be wailing in an effort to terrorize me away from their precious eggs. Their gentle composure as they hovered above was more terrifying than the aggressive, diving attacks they should be making as I climb towards their igloo.
Their silent cautiousness suggested that I was not the worst of their problems.
When I reached the top of the tower and approached the igloo, one of the adults did start screaming a bit, but it was too little, too late to ease my concern. Peeking into the igloo I expelled an optimistic sigh upon finding three eggs. If the BOIS peregrines had gotten a late start to the season, and were planning to lay one more egg for a full clutch of four, then we might have found an explanation for this unsettling scene: perhaps I just caught them on a last small break before the final egg arrives and they formally commence weeks of painful, non-stop incubation. A “Last Hurrah” of sorts.
But these small clues and a little wishful thinking were not enough to flush the deep feeling of dread that comes from an instinctual awareness that something just isn’t right. Jo Durt and Bridgeboy are an experienced pair. It is almost unthinkable that she would lay this late, almost two full weeks later than she had laid in previous years. And even at three eggs, I know this pair to be far more aggressive and defensive than they were being here.
There was only one reasonable explanation I could think of, and it was the most heart breaking of all.
Perhaps the explanation was that this wasn’t Jo Durt. Perhaps, instead, in her place, was a younger, less experienced female who had killed her and stolen her tower. Perhaps the moment I’ve lived in fear of since I first discovered her here had finally arrived.
We know this happens because we have seen this before on web cams. And the reason it tends to happen at the worst possible time is the same reason it happens in the first place: the raging hormones of the nesting season.
And as fate would have it, we actually have had a camera running at BOIS this season which should contain the truth.
So I quickly pulled the memory card and walked silently away through the mud. I’m sure the bungee cord was banging chaotically against the ladder. But I didn’t hear a thing.
This season, the Little Egg Foundation is running a study collecting data at select peregrine falcon nests in New Jersey. We are seeking to create the most complete record possible of what peregrine falcons are eating at different nesting sites. The cameras are setup to record every movement at each nest for an entire season. Since this will produce millions of photos which would quickly overwhelm even a large team of humans trying to analyze them, I spent much of the winter training an artificial intelligence about peregrine falcons for Little Egg Foundation to process everything. We call her “Ming Ming” and she is truly amazing.
Coincidentally, one of these cameras has been running at Bonnet Island and has recorded all of the activity there. There are already hundreds of thousands of photos, but Ming Ming is eager and happy to receive them. Although I trained Ming Ming specifically to identify peregrine falcon when they are carrying prey, eating, and feeding each other, she had to learn a lot about peregrine falcon nesting to get there, so I am teaching her some more so she can also help us uncover the timeline and the truth about what happened at Bonnet Island, and what the consequences for this season might be. This is a massive, costly, and time consuming job so this story will have to be continued as things unfold.
But both Ming Ming and I have been studying select photos around the clock and continually nagging Kathy Clark for input. The few things we’ve already learned are big news. I know there are people out there who love this peregrine family as much as I do so I wanted to share right away.
We didn’t lose Jo Durt.
We lost Bridgeboy.
Banded 14/AM, Bridgeboy was born outside the Sinatra Suite on the penthouse floor of the Atlantic Club Hotel & Casino of Atlantic City in 2012. His mother was the legendary falcon “Lady Katherine.” He was King of The Causeway and has been Jo Durt’s lifelong mate since 2017. At 9 years old, he was in the prime of his life.
While we can’t be 100% certain he is dead since no one has recovered a body, it seems likely. So far the basic timeline is that Jo Durt and Bridgeboy had started their nest around the 8th of April. Jo Durt had just laid the third egg when a mysterious interloping male arrived on the tower. The pair seemed to tolerate this young male at first, but Bridgeboy became increasingly agitated when he tried to enter the igloo full of eggs. Bridgeboy can be seen aggressively defending the tower, but at some point around the 14th, he vanished. The new male has been there ever since and Bridgeboy has not been seen again.
I’m very grateful to have Ming Ming to maintain focus, keep an open mind, stay calm, and work towards the truth while I am an emotional wreck. I loved Bridgeboy, truly, and deeply. But I’ll continue to work to get back on that horse and keep my head on straight. Because continually working towards the truth is the best we can do, and the only activity really worth pursuing. The season is only just beginning. There is so much work to be done.
While we begin to grieve the possible loss of our beloved Bridgeboy, we can also take some comfort that life goes on.
Because this story is far from over. Truly, we appear to have already started the next chapter before we even realized the last had ended.
This young, mysterious, interloping male who has showed up out of nowhere and turned life upside down at BOIS?
It turns out we know this bird.
BE/68. Unbelievably, if you have the Little Egg Foundation 2021 calendar, he is “April” and is hanging on your wall and staring at you right now.
To be continued.