Drip. Drip. Drip. It was another unseasonably warm January day, and the fine mist in the air collected on my bike helmet, coalesced, and formed plump droplets that fell onto my gloved hands. Normally, I try extra hard to stay positive through the winter months of Michigan, but there was no getting around it on this thirty-three-degree day—the weather was grey, gloomy, and just plain terrible. To borrow from the lexicon of an English friend of mine, it was pissing outside. A perfect day for that word, I thought, definitely pissing out today.
There was only one thing that could lift my spirits—catching a glimpse of the legendary campus peregrine falcon. Famous for their incredible speed and agility in flight, peregrine falcons typically nest high in isolated rock crevices, out of reach of predators and with excellent views of the territory below. However, in recent years, these birds have become highly successful city dwellers. On the ledges of skyscrapers, they’ll build nests overlooking the city, from which they scan the habitat of the concrete jungle below, preying on pigeons, house sparrows, and European starlings in blazingly fast speed chases. Their dive, or stoop, has been clocked at the earthly animal high speed of over two hundred miles per hour.
So, how hard could it be to find the fastest animal on the planet? To narrow my chase, I checked eBird, a highly accessible citizen science bird sighting platform where thousands of users post bird sightings fairly regularly. With just a little sleuthing, I noticed that the falcon had recently been seen atop a building on North Quad, which was conveniently on my bike route home.
My chain squeaked from the recent rust developments, a product of salted roads and perpetual winter sogginess. I peddled furiously, standing up to keep my keister off my wet bike seat. I gripped the handlebars, gritted my teeth, and hopped onto the sidewalk around the quad.
Though I had narrowed my search, the structural complexity of North Quad was still substantial. Multiple buildings surrounded a central courtyard, each U-shaped and interlocking, like two tetris pieces. On top of each were various ledges and outcroppings that all looked like prime places for the potential peregrine. Like an Israelite circling Jericho, I must have walked around North Quad seven times, searching desperately for any sign of the falcon. Nothing.
When foraging for mushrooms, eager fungi seekers often carry with them a sample of the mushroom they’re looking for—a single specimen of a black trumpet or a carved, wooden morel, for example. They do this to remind themselves what they’re looking for. Of course, they haven’t consciously forgotten what they are looking for; instead, they’re reminding their subconscious what the mushroom feels like to be seen in the environment.
Sometimes, even though one might be surrounded by morels, it can be almost impossible to see them until one has stumbled upon the first. Due to this mysterious phenomena, mushroom hunters often philosophize that one doesn’t find mushrooms; rather, mushrooms choose to reveal themselves to the hunter, when the hunter is ready.
Flash. Out of the corner of my eye, a grey bolt of lightning shot out from behind the gothic-style church on the corner across from North Quad. I looked over just in time to catch a glimpse of sharp, pointed wings, a dark silhouette, thin tail feathers—the peregrine falcon! Effortless as the wind, the avian acrobat jet streamed past my search area and off in the direction of Burton Tower.
Like a jockey chasing after the Triple Crown I jumped on my bike and raced towards the tower, my feet nearly slipping off the pedals. When I was close enough to adequately view the bird I checked to confirm my suspicion. Sure enough, through my binoculars I could see the falcon perched two hundred feet high on the concrete monolith, his black hooded head scanning the campus below.
Thank you for flying by, I felt like saying, but I kept quiet. It seemed like a foolish thing to say, like saying “thanks” after biting into a good peach—it just doesn’t capture it. Sometimes the generosity of others is best acknowledged through simply accepting gifts as they’re given.