“Set out, pilgrim. Set out into the freedom and the wandering. Find your people. God is much bigger, wilder, more generous, and more wonderful than you imagined.” – Sarah Bessey
This summer, I saw something that was so stunning, so stupendous and gruesome and extraordinary, that I am still rolling it around in my mind, trying to derive some meaning from the incredible scene which occurred right in my own back yard.
It was a Wednesday afternoon. My husband Bill and I were doing laundry. He was upstairs (our laundry room is on the second floor) transferring our freshly-washed running clothes from the washer to the dryer and I was downstairs in the family room reading a book.
I was facing the patio door, which opens to our deck, with my nose in the book, when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something floating down from the sky. First, there was one something, then two, then ten, then dozens of gray, flocculant somethings floating past my field of view and landing on the deck.
At first, I thought the somethings were ashes, and I was concerned that there was a fire in our dryer vent. I ran to the open patio door and looked out as the somethings continued to rain down. “These are all feathers!” I realized.
I do what I always do when I am excited, confused, or have something to share: called for my hubby. He reached my side just as the last feather landed gently on the deck. “Look! These are all feathers. Where are they coming from?” I was looking up to find the origin of the feather downpour and seeing nothing that would give me a clue.
Bill looked out in the yard and immediately saw the source of the rain of feathers: there was a hawk-like bird sitting in our yard, not five feet from our patio, clutching her unfortunate prey in her talons.
I ran to the car to retrieve my binoculars to get a better look at the bird. We have many red-tailed hawks in our neck of the woods, but this was not a red-tail. This bird was too elegant, sleek and small.
“Is it a hawk?” Bill asked. “No!” I breathed, “It’s a peregrine falcon!”
Just then a red-tailed hawk swooped down on the falcon, who was sitting on her prey in the yard. The hawk, almost twice the size as the falcon, was trying to poach the mockingbird the falcon had caught, but the peregrine was too quick for the red-tail. The peregrine flew away with her dinner clutched in her talons and the hawk was left to screech his disappointment from the branches of the big walnut tree behind our house.
It was like having a National Geographic movie about birds of prey take place right in our own back yard. All that was left to commemorate this event was a sad pile of gray and white feathers.
When I first began watching birds, 30 years ago, this scene would have been impossible.
Peregrine falcons are native to Pennsylvania, but they were wiped out by the widespread use of the insecticide DDT, as the writer and scientist Rachel Carson so famously documented in her book “Silent Spring“. They were put on the federal Endangered Species list in 1972; no known peregrine nesting occurred in our state between 1959 and 1987.
In the early 1990s, peregrines were reintroduced to several of their historic nesting sites and have since spread throughout the state in one of the most remarkable comebacks of any endangered species. They were removed from our state’s Endangered list just this year.
Peregrines typically nested on cliffs near rivers, but these adaptable birds have been known to nest on skyscrapers and bridges. One of the most famous peregrine nests, in fact, is found on the 15th-floor ledge of an office building in our state capital, Harrisburg.
Peregrine watchers have trained a camera on the nest so that viewers can tune in as the birds lay their eggs and feed and fledge their young. In the 18 years the nest has been in existence, 64 young falcons have successfully fledged, all documented by the “Falcon Cam.”
The name of the 15-story building? The Rachel Carson State Office Building. How is that for kismet?
Bill asked me if I thought the falcon would feed the prey to her young, but I said I didn’t think so. This was late July, past the time that young falcons are typically fledged. This was a wandering falcon, maybe even one documented by the Falcon Cam last spring.
Peregrine falcons get their names from the Spanish word “Peregrino” (from the Latin “peregrinus“), which means “pilgrim“. After their young are fledged, peregrines are known to travel widely, some as far as 15,000 miles in a year.
I feel like a peregrine lately. Bill and I spent the first part of our married lives raising three boys on a shoestring budget. We valued travel, however, and used a large portion of our precious discretionary funds to explore as a family. We wanted to give our boys experiences, rather than things.
The boys are now men, who have all left the nest, and it is presently our time to wander, Bill and me, to set off on pilgrimages of our own, to get out of our comfort zone and discover the world’s exquisite diversity.
We leave for Spain next week to follow one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in the Christian world, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. We will be walking the Way of Saint James from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, ending at the shrine to the Apostle Saint James the Great.
Due to the nature of the walk, we will be unplugging from cell phones, laptops, and all electronic devices. I will not be publishing a blog post or responding to comments (after Monday) until the beginning of October.
At that time, I will probably have lots of vacation photos and stories to bore you with and I look forward to doing so.
Until then, I plan to set out, into the freedom and the wandering.
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