Vineyard's newest celebrity sends crowds soaring

August 20, 2004|By Sally Steenland

EDGARTOWN, Mass. -- A European celebrity flew into Martha's Vineyard the other weekend, thrilling jaded locals and luring crowds from the mainland. They came by plane and car, bus and taxi, ferry and bike to stand for hours along a rural beach road, hoping to catch a glimpse.

No one like him had ever set foot in North America before, much less the Vineyard. In fact, this particular fellow was flying from Europe to his winter place in Africa and blew in just by chance. His native habitat is Eastern Europe and Russia.

And he didn't disappoint. He posed for pictures, though keeping a distance. And even though he didn't give interviews, folks who saw him said it was absolutely worth the effort.

OK, so he's a bird. But he's also the surprise main attraction on the island, a place that's loaded with celebrities in August.

This red-footed falcon, a 2-year-old adolescent male with soulful golden eyes rimmed in black, a bright gold beak and striking orange claws, apparently was blown off course over the Atlantic and ended up on a grass-strip airfield near the beach.

A local birder spotted him, a Harvard expert identified him and, once the news was out, the crowds flocked in.

For over a week now, they've been finding their way to the airfield, which is basically a few mown runways on 190 acres of sand-plain grasslands. Twenty years ago, the land was threatened with development, but because of local opposition, it was saved by Edgartown and is now managed by the Nature Conservancy. Its stewardship has greatly increased the diversity of wildlife, which easily could have attracted the falcon's keen eye.

Until now, the airfield's most popular attraction was a red biplane that gives sightseeing rides. The plane hasn't stopped flying because of the bird. It rumbles down the runway and takes off with a rattling roar.

The falcon is unfazed. He sits on a short gray post, chewing the head off a grasshopper. The post seems to be his home for now, or at least where he eats. And he eats constantly, partly because he's an adolescent who's molting. In the short time he's been here, you can see gaps where his immature feathers have fallen out and new definitive ones have yet to grow in.

Experts say his kind is gregarious and affable. This fellow definitely is. He preens and fluffs, glances over his shoulder, soars and swoops and dives. He recently went after an airborne bug, missed it, got chased, made a sharp quick turn and snatched the bug in his beak.

Watching his antics, one of the birders suggested, "This guy needs a name."

"Absolutely not!" a woman next to her said. "He's wild, not a pet."

She has a point. But even without a name, the falcon has drawn a crowd of admirers who have become attached to his presence and worried about his fate.

He's thousands of miles from home. Where will he go when it gets cold here? True, the airfield is rich with bugs, grasshoppers and voles, so maybe he can make it through the fall and into winter on local food.

But birds do not live by bugs alone. Without a mate, he's bound to endure a long lonely life.

A local expert, Gus Ben David, who runs the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, says a red-footed falcon can live 12 to 15 years. He also says that this bird could fly off any day and that he almost certainly will leave when his now-abundant food supply dwindles.

Once a bird has been displaced, Mr. Ben David says, it's impossible to predict where he'll go. He might take off for New Jersey or Florida, but he isn't likely to come back here.

When he's gone, all we'll have is the red biplane, which has recently been doing some dramatic swoops and dives, as if threatened by the competition.

Big deal. Very impressive. Let me tell you, it's nothing compared to the new guy.

Sally Steenland is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

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