Chapter 1 Morro Bay, California 300 feet over the ocean, she pushed headfirst off the rock ledge and began falling unafraid into the void. After a long half-second, when clear of the wind-sculpted cliff face, she spread her broad wings, feeling the air. Stroking into the air rushing past her, she climbed. Blowing from offshore since before dawn, a stiff sea breeze pushed against the barrier cliff which diverted the airflow and shot the invisible current skyward. The updraft caught her, lifted her, hurled the bird to where she wanted to go. Morro Rock, her aerie’s location, wades in the shallow waters just offshore from California’s Central Coast. The Pacific Ocean laps most of its circumference, seeking without success to erode the eternal volcanic stone. A broad, sandy causeway leads from the rock to the laid-back beach city of Morro Bay. Nearly six hundred feet tall and a quarter-mile wide, the rock is the plugged throat of an ancient volcano. Frozen in time and space, the hulking lava bubble stands guard over the entrance to a calm, protected harbor. Fly with the Falcon 6 Composed of molten magma solidified eons ago, Morro Rock is sprinkled and crusted with bird excrement and other organic debris. Since time immemorial, the bird’s direct ancestors have left their white-splashed streaks on the rock along with the desiccated remains of their once airborne prey. Dried guano and sun-bleached bones continue adding to Morro Rock’s bulk to this day. Ancients of the local Chumash indigenous people and countless generations of peregrine falcons have held the massive outcropping to be sacred ground. It is the source of their respective foundation myths. For years without number, both tribes, avian and human, have feasted, bred, mourned their dead, and worshiped the heavens on Morro Rock. The rock’s seaward face, hidden from the town, forced the west wind upward, an energy-saving vertical torrent offering a free boost to the azure sky for any flyers skilled enough to ride it. The bird rose ever higher with only the occasional beat of her outstretched wings. 500 feet, 750 feet, 1000 feet, until even Morro Rock’s planform shrank beneath her. Eventually, the updraft faded. She circled, riding its last spent upwellings, at altitude, finally at home in the cool morning air. Her long, thin wingtip feathers flexed and tilted as her powerful wings pushed her forward, shoving flowing air downward and rearward. With the outline and the function of an oriental fan, her tail twisted left and right, shaping the airflow as it passed and left her. Each feather moved on its own in concert with its neighbors, keeping her coordinated with the slipstream. She lived and flew on the edge of disaster. Birds are aerodynamically unstable. Without her primary flight feathers constantly adjusting her flight path to keep her equilibrium, she would spin Ed Cobleigh 7 out of control. The falcon rode the airstream, balancing herself between the fluid forces providing her with lifesustaining lift and gravity’s relentless pull. Below, far below, squadrons of various birds squawked when she took wing, screeching out their respective species’ unique danger cries. They warned others of their kind to the airborne predator’s presence. White gulls glided, soaring as they watched fearfully above, their long, tapered wings generating effortless lift with little associated drag and with even less energy spent. Shorebirds wheeled, scattered across the foaming surf line and above the beige sand. Crows, inland corvids out for a day at the beach, cawed and circled, a thin, shifting noir cloud on the move as seen from the falcon’s height. In perfect, low-level V formation, a flight of gray pelicans coasted along, relatively unconcerned. They paralleled the curling wave tops, riding the slight air updrafts generated by the marching swells. Sturdy adult pelicans are too large to serve as a falcon’s prey when easier kills appear available. The pelicans instinctively understood that dynamic. Jet-black vultures with bald, blood-red heads also soared and glided, patiently awaiting the inevitable carrion they knew would come. Vultures cannot sustain flight by flapping, they must ride the updrafts, a skill at which they excel. Tiny ground squirrels scattered among the rocks outlining the causeway froze motionless, interpreting each birds’ unique danger calls. Rodents rarely suffer predation by shoreline falcons, but it pays to be ultra-vigilant at the bottom of the food chain. As she climbed into the sheltering sky, the peregrine gradually disappeared against the shinning-blue glare. She rose further into her atmospheric realm. The milling birds below relaxed, quieted down, and considered other vital Fly with the Falcon 8 birdie interests such as their next meal. Only the highly intelligent crows, with long memories, continued to watch for the unseen danger and to complain verbally about it. Death from above was now invisible to the most-likely prey birds, but still she was there, circling. Her coal-dark eyes, the binocular orbs of an apex predator, were much more acute than those of any potential kill. She saw them. They could not see her at all. Peregrines are not pure soaring birds like the common red-tailed hawks or the hawks’ more numerous cousins, the black vultures. While she rode the upwelling, her wings stayed mostly locked and motionless. Remaining at altitude required scant effort. Each wing thrust represented a few ergs of precious stored food energy lost. Updrafts generated by the rock made her flight nearly effortless. Without the vertical airflow, the longer she remained airborne, the more tiring her flight would become. A quick kill resulting in fast food represented her usual mission profile, but not today. To fly for a peregrine is both a survival skill and a way of doing business. But sometimes when the wind blew just right, when the burning sun was not high, and when she had recently eaten, she flew for the unadulterated joy of it. The thrusting updraft brought her easily to her airborne orbit, throwing her into the sky. Enjoying the ride, she banked and turned, her wings occasionally fanning the air. It was a superb day to be a peregrine falcon. Distant rolling thunder washed over her in-flight revelry, echoing off the rock and reverberating across the nearby town. The rumblings emanated from a cloudless sky, but few humans or birds noticed, each accustomed to the almost daily noise. Far above the falcon, two Ed Cobleigh 9 United States Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets streaked over the coast headed out to sea for a routine training sortie. The flight leader, once over water, signaled to her wingman to increase the howling engines’ power level, producing even more thunderous clamor. The female fighter pilot epitomized the equal opportunities offered by aviation, whether conducted by bird or human. However, some flyers are considered more equal than others in both domains. Such distinctions were lost on the avian realm just above the earth’s surface. Far below, 50 feet over the paved sand spit leading to the town, flew a gaggle of ringed-neck doves, a nonnative species. The disorganized swarm of flapping feathers made surprising speed. A singleton lagged behind the group, not quite able to keep up with its mates. Doves are fast flyers, but this one was not, its wings oddly uncoordinated and awkward. Brief aerial playtime over, she looked earthward. Her gaze focused on the trailing bird. She locked her vision on her desired prey, ignoring the swirl of non-targeted birds beneath her. Banking out of her oval flight pattern, she turned away from the ocean and toward the shore. Her wings tilted just so, one pointed slightly to the sky, one shaded down toward the earth. Slowly, carefully, she matched her path with the flock of doves below, stalking them. Following their path from behind and from far above, out of sight, she adjusted her course putting the rising sun directly behind her. When she attacked, the flock would have to look back into old Sol’s blinding glare. Yes, that slower bird was the one. It looked unwell. She half-rolled onto her left side, wings partially folded against her body spilling their lift. Her feet and razor- Fly with the Falcon 10 sharp talons remained tucked tightly rearward, reducing parasitic wind drag. Her pale-yellow, hooked beak fell well below the hazy horizon as she fell into a nearly vertical dive. She reversed her roll back upright while keeping her wings closed in a perfect low-drag, teardrop profile. Falling initially under light gravity, she accelerated faster and faster as the planet pulled her earthward. The female peregrine falcon flaunted her status as the fastest animal who has ever lived on this earth. On the other side of the same planet, another female aviator had, earlier in the day, taken flight as well but for entirely different reasons.