Monday, June 26, 2006 | The man with the white beard aims his binoculars at the golden cliff side, scanning its ridges and crags, trying to spot one hidden nook hundreds of feet above the ground. That little nook’s the reason he is here.
But he is a guest, a visitor, in unfamiliar surroundings. Somewhere up there, rare peregrine falcons have scratched out their home, high above the paddling surfers and bronzed sun-seekers at Black’s Beach.
Will Sooter sees him, shouts “Yo!” and approaches. Unprompted, Sooter begins deciphering the familiar cliff face, narrating its jagged topography to the visitor.
“There’s the aerie right there,” Sooter says, using the term for a falcon’s nest. “Where the mute is. See it?”
“No,” replies the man, confused. “What? Mute?”
“Bird [excrement],” Sooter replies.
Both put their binoculars to their eyes, looking now for white streaks on the tan-and-gray cliff.
“Come down at a 30-degree angle, about 100 feet,” Sooter says. “Where all the bird [excrement] is. It’s pretty obvious.”
Their eyes glide down to the falcons’ nest, tucked inside a rocky outcropping. And soon, the two men are talking about the predators that call it home. Sooter believes they are the first peregrines nesting along La Jolla’s cliffs in at least 50 years.
The man, Steve Jorgensen, down from Dana Point, is curious about birds the falcons have killed. He asks: “So have you seen any pelicans killed?”
“Oh no,” Sooter responds. “They don’t kill pelicans. They’ll attack a pelican.”
Sooter has seen the attacks on pelicans, ravens, hawks, even the hang gliders who slide across the sky here. Almost no one knows these birds’ habits better than Sooter. The red-haired 55-year-old from Solana Beach spends nearly every day at the beach. It reads on his sun-drenched red skin, freckled and hardened from constant exposure. Semi-circles of pale skin trace sandal straps across his feet.
He is a self-described naturalist, a photographer and an amateur ornithologist. While the labels each fit, they don’t quite explain the Orange County native. To understand him is to understand his desire to educate people about the creatures that make the sandy stretches between Black’s Beach and Torrey Pines State Reserve feel untamed. Through his work, he says, he wants to raise interest in conserving those places.
Sooter is a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent the first part of his professional life working with nature. He lived in the South Pacific for three years as a field biologist. He spent a year aiding in the study of plate tectonics on Howard Hughes’ deep-sea exploration ship, the GloMar Challenger.
Then he went corporate, spending 12 years working in the wireless industry. He spent time as a consultant, earned enough money to retire and made his exit. Though only four years have passed since then, he says that era seems like a lifetime ago.
Sooter now tracks falcons and hawks that live along northern San Diego’s beaches. He is fueled by a desire to document the region’s growing falcon population. Peregrine falcons were an endangered species until 1999. Their population was ravaged by use of the pesticide DDT after World War II.
But they’re back, and Sooter is following every move of five falcons near La Jolla. In a day, Sooter estimates he walks between six and 12 miles tracking and photographing them. He wore out four pairs of sandals this way last year.
This pattern has made him a fixture in the area. Always shaking hands. Always passing out cards. Just as he did with Jorgensen. He e-mails his photographs several times a week to more than 600 people that he has grown to know.
Those photographs are intensely intimate. Sunlight glimmering off an osprey’s yellow irises. A peregrine falcon belching up the feathers of a kill. An immature falcon launching into its first flight.
They are the reason he comes out here, the reason he sometimes spends six hours standing in one spot, waiting for a perched falcon to move, to simply flinch. He says it is like babysitting.
A note of paternalism is heard in his voice when he describes these birds, who he has named. A peregrine couple are Sid and Nancy, for their proclivity to have sex. Another falcon nesting further north is Stretch, named after Sooter began exercising and stretching during long shifts waiting for the bird to move.
Those who have grown to know Sooter understand his fatherly approach to these birds. Patricia Masters, who lives nearby and has joined Sooter’s effort to track the birds, has also become fascinated by the complexities of their social behavior. The way two falcon chicks share their meals, the way they have practiced flight patterns. Observers are treated to an up-close view of the simple ways in which the birds interact.
“I think it’s very easy for people who spend a very long time observing them to feel like they know them personally,” Masters says. “The need is there to give them names and interpret personality traits and all these interesting things that make wild creatures feel like they are personalities you know.
“But there’s also this aspect that if you don’t watch them, you’re going to miss it.”