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Peregrine of Mind
Living on the edge, with falcons.

Will J. Sooter’s image of a peregrine falcon with a willet in its talons was the first place winner in the Audubon Magazine 2010 Photo Awards’ Amateur category.
Will Sooter

When Will Sooter semi-retired eight years ago, he turned to the beach, running long distances barefoot along the wrackline beneath the rugged sandstone bluffs of La Jolla, California. “I was living by the rhythm of the tides,” Sooter says. Then, out for a jog one day, he spotted another athlete—a peregrine falcon gliding by the cliffs. He slowed his jog. He stopped to watch. The next day he ran back, with binoculars, to do the same. Then Sooter decided to go every day—all day—carrying a disposable camera in his gym shorts pocket. A month later he bought his first digital SLR and zoom lens, and jogged up and down the beach with his gear, having swapped the rhythm of the tides for that of a falcon. This has led to eight years of study, invaluable observations, and, most recently, an award from Audubon for a stirring photograph: a willet, mouth wide, being whisked off to its death. (See other Audubon Magazine Photography Awards winners here.)

Every winter Sooter starts again, living in “bio-synchronicity” from February through June with La Jolla’s peregrines. During his first season, he watched a single male, a tiercel; it would disappear, a speck disintegrating into the Pacific distance, and return with prey its own size, birds almost heavy enough to drag it into the waves. The City of San Diego lifeguards came to know Sooter—he was like a piece of driftwood on the shore—and in his third year of peregrine watching, they drove up on the sand to tell him that there was a mating pair of falcons three miles up the beach. They gave Sooter a ride to the more remote location, a spot with fewer beachgoers and an active aerie. He’s watched this nest since then, camera in hand.

Sooter has always had a penchant for observation. Fresh out of college with a degree in natural resources management, he spent almost six years on the high seas surveying marine mammals, earning his ethological chops. Nothing could be more exciting, Sooter thought, yet he was swept into a communications career by the high-tech winds. Twenty years later, however—struck, as it were, by the La Jolla peregrines—he had the time and savings to return to his original zeal. “It was a rare opportunity to observe a breeding pair in wild habitat,” Sooter says. “But it’s also urban.” Urbane, in fact: The choicest real estate in San Diego County lies on the bluffs, and not just for peregrines. Sooter has permission from the owner of the four-acre property above the falcons’ nest to use the cliff top as his “outdoor office,” which he does especially when the juveniles fledge in May. Then it’s just him and the boisterous young close by, wheeling before the long, lustrous view. The first-years shadow and pummel their parents, for food, and each other, in play—and often crash-land.

Much of the year, however, Sooter’s down on the beach, where it’s a challenge—though a doable one—to remain focused and “incognito,” he says. “My inspiration is someone like Jane Goodall. But in order to do the type of work she did, you need to be able to concentrate and be alone most of the time.” Distractions abound: dudes in the surf; paragliders overhead; a stranger doing vigorous pushups, chest to sand, a few feet away. One day he arrived at his post below the aerie to discover a movie set: Seven trucks, several hundred people, and 12 horses had materialized overnight, as if washed up on the tide. The female falcon dive-bombed the unsuspecting equines. More than a bit territorial, she’ll ride almost anything into the surf, even passing pelicans.

Laid-back and genial, Sooter is a San Diego soul in sunglasses and a cap. But he “hops to” in the field, says Dominick Mendola, a friend and engineer at the nearby Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “If you slip on the pickleweed, you’re over the edge,” Mendola says. Up a canyon between the cliffs, Sooter might sit and wait, watching through his binocs, scribbling notes, recording his observations to the second—then, bam! Setting down his notebook, he grabs his camera and runs the steep but familiar trail to the surf. When a falcon dives, or stoops, it clenches its yellow talons into a mallet and hammers its prey. Often the peregrine catches its stunned victim as it falls, but sometimes, over the ocean, it plummets into the waves. Then the falcon swings back and forth, like a pendulum, determined to snatch its quarry from the Pacific before a riptide siphons it away. Sooter often splashes into the surf up to his knees to photograph. He’s lost three camera bodies to lapping saltwater. “It’s not crazy,” Mendola, a longtime falcon lover, explains. “It’s just enthusiasm.”

For Sooter, the camera is first and foremost a tool to record behavior. After the action stops, he’ll run through his time-stamped photos and, in his notebook, jot down his impression of the events, detail by detail. His is a passion but also a genuine, devoted study. In his notebook, for example, on April 22, 2009, he described the final moments of the screaming willet (above) featured in Audubon: “14:30. On one pass she hits the willet with her talons flipping it up in the air 360 degrees. …  14:34. She flies right by me with the willet. … I lift my camera and lens, press the shutter and capture six frames. … 14:34:55. The falcon stands on top of the willet. … She finally snaps the willet’s spinal cord. Instantly the willet’s wings extend straight out.”

Years ago, Sooter began corresponding with some of the “bigwigs” of falcon research, curious to know the finer points of what he was witnessing, and he has received an immense education this way. But Sooter is teaching them, too, by documenting little-known behavior, such as the male slipping down the beach to a neighboring aerie—a two-timing tiercel. What’s more, Sooter is the first, perhaps, to record the subtle interactions of peregrines in such crisp, thorough detail and, since he’s able to anticipate their moves, the result is often art.

Raptorophiles have noticed. Steve Sherrod, a peregrine expert and the director of Oklahoma’s Sutton Avian Research Center, came across Sooter’s work online and rang him up. “I’ve spent my whole life working with these falcons,” says Sherrod, “but Will has been able to illustrate the things I can only describe. He has some of the finest images I’ve ever seen. To just see these things with binoculars, let alone actually capture them with a camera—it’s quite a feat.” He also thinks Sooter’s immersive citizen science is “on equal footing with other types of biology.” Now friends, Sherrod and Sooter are planning a book that will pair descriptions of peregrine behavior—often inscrutable to the untrained eye—with close-ups of falcons courting, exchanging food, and rough-housing against a background of La Jolla blue, sand, or bluff. Sooter didn’t have a project in mind when he began watching, but such a collaboration now makes sense.

Sooter’s work has also raised awareness about the falcon’s return to the San Diego area, which he calls a testament to the pioneers of peregrine research and conservation—people like Sherrod, who brought attention to the bird’s precipitous decline at the hands of pernicious DDT. “Those guys,” Sooter says, with reverence, “it’s a tribute to them.” As is Sooter’s work. When he began, La Jolla, which is perfect habitat, had no resident breeding peregrines. It’s thought there hadn’t been any for 50 years. In 2009, however, the State of California removed the bird from its endangered species list; and in La Jolla today, three aeries exist on just two miles of bluff, one of which Sooter monitors, no matter the weather.

He’s not sure he can give himself to the falcons wholly for many more years. The elements, and now the economy, are wearing. But he’ll try. Of the upcoming season, Sooter says, “I’ll probably go for it again. I’m feeling it in my bones.” For the marvel of a passion is that, like a peregrine hunting from on high, it’s tough to dodge. “It’s something that grabs you and won’t let go,” says Sherrod, who began watching falcons as an eight-year-old. “I think that’s what happened to Will.”

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