Sometimes the only way to explain the allure of nature is to talk dollars and cents.
By Paul DoironA few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see a rare falcon that had been spotted chasing ducks around Wells Harbor. News of the gyrfalcon — a native of the Arctic tundra — had ping-ponged around the little corner of the Internet frequented by Maine bird nerds. When Kristen and I arrived at the boat ramp where the raptor had last been reported, we found a crowd of people scanning the marsh with binoculars and scopes.
The day was gray, but the mood was festive. Many of us knew each other from previous chases. We’d met on trips to see “Troppy,” the red-billed tropicbird that summers out on Seal Island, or we’d shaken hands on forays to find the directionally challenged crested caracara that appeared in Unity last year. There were plenty of new faces too. Birders had made the pilgrimage that blustery morning from all over the Northeast.
The only one who seemingly hadn’t gotten the invitation was the gyrfalcon. She’d evidently put on a show an hour before we’d arrived, harassing gulls, dive-bombing eiders. Then she’d vanished. But we were hopeful that she’d return soon enough. Every now and again, men would emerge from the nearby boatyard and stare at the strange people who had taken over the public landing. They’d shake their heads and laugh and go back inside.
After a while, an Audi A4 pulled into the parking lot and a couple got out. I had the feeling that they had just come from brunch in Ogunquit and were out for a leisurely drive. They came toward us with questioning smiles on their faces.
“What are you all looking at?” the woman asked me.
“There’s a rare falcon that we’re hoping to see.”
She turned to the man beside her. “What did I tell you?”
He didn’t seem to believe me. “It’s not a moose?”
“No,” I said. “We’re here to see a gyrfalcon.”
“What? All of you?”
“Gyrfalcons live in the high Arctic and don’t normally get this far south,” I explained. “It’s been years since anybody saw one in the Northeast. There are people here from New Jersey who came up just to see this one.”
Now he was certain I was having a joke at his expense. “They drove from Jersey just to see a bird?”
When I first took up birding nearly two decades ago — a prerequisite Kristen had imposed as a condition of courting her — I felt self-conscious about my new pastime. I thought of birders as people wearing funny hats and pants tucked into their socks. But the best birders I have met are all-around outdoorspeople whose knowledge of the natural world is awe-inspiring. So it no longer fazes me when non-birders find my hobby bewildering. Instead, I take it as an educational challenge.
“Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons in the world,” I explained, thinking that detail might impress him. “They’ll even eat other hawks.”
He smiled, glancing at his watch.
I tried a different approach. “In the Middle Ages, they were so valuable that only kings were allowed to hunt with them. Even today, they’re worth a fortune to smugglers.”
His eyes widened. “How much?”
I hesitated, but he didn’t strike me as a man with connections in the black market for wild animals. “Tens of thousands of dollars. Gyrfalcons are status symbols for some of the Arab royal families.”
I asked if he wanted to borrow my binoculars to see the rough-legged hawk soaring over the tree line. He accepted my invitation with real enthusiasm.
“How much is that one worth?” he asked.
He might never take up birding, I thought, but it was a start.