Back from the brink


We all see things differently. My distinguished writer friend the late Maurice Kenny and I argued on more than one occasion over what sorts of books we like. I provoked the debate, asserting that given a choice between a brilliantly written book with not much at its core and a book of fabulous material presented in pedestrian prose, I’d choose the fabulous and the pedestrian every time. Maurice, a champion of fine writing and a gifted writer himself, disagreed, vehemently. I wish, when we last crossed swords, I had Darryl McGrath’s Flight Paths to thump on the table.

Make no mistake. McGrath’s prose is every bit as good as it needs to be. Yet in creating this book, the author, an Albany-based journalist, chose to devote the lion’s share of her energy to gathering and sifting important material, not working and reworking her sentences until they gleam like polished gold.

Oh, and what riveting material it is! Between two soft covers, McGrath tucks in all the great New York State bird-conservation struggles and triumphs of recent decades: the effort to bring back the peregrine falcon; the high-flying, continent-spanning effort that put the bald eagle back on Adirondack rivers and lakes; loons and lead; the Bicknell’s thrush; the threats to birds from windmills, free-roaming housecats, and night lights; and more. McGrath, a solid writer and thorough researcher, brings these stories alive by putting the biological facts and human interest of the material squarely front and center.

For me, the most interesting parts of Flight Paths are the ones that recount efforts to bring back nesting peregrine falcons and bald eagles to New York State. Partly the appeal comes from the birds, and partly it’s from the cast of characters who labored long and hard in the face of inconstant funding and daunting odds to accomplish what at the outset must have seemed nearly impossible: bringing large, not easily handled birds that had been extirpated from the state by pesticide poisoning and other hazards back into the richly diverse fold of our avifauna.

New York State now boasts more than seventy breeding pairs of peregrine falcons. PHOTO BY JEFF NADLER
New York State now boasts more than seventy breeding pairs of peregrine falcons.

The lead roles in the peregrine story are filled by two bald men who in the book’s black-and-white photographs look like twins, Tom Cade of Cornell University and Heinz Meng of the State University of New York at New Paltz, and an intrepid woman named Barbara Loucks. Cade, soft-spoken and modest in McGrath’s account, and Meng, who I met on two occasions and found anything but, put aside any potential rivalry between them and worked effectively together to bring the fast-flying falcon back. Meng led the way with successful captive breeding of the birds, and Cade took the ball Meng handed him and ran with it. In 1975, Cade and the colleagues and students who worked with him in the project released, or hacked, sixteen young peregrines in the wild. Half of them survived into the next year. The work continued for years. It was Barbara Loucks, hired by the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Endangered Species Unit in 1978, who did more than anyone else over the years to keep the field work going.

Today, peregrine falcons breed at numerous sites throughout the Hudson Valley and in scattered cliff-side locations in the eastern Adirondacks and Champlain Valley. Once a few years back, one even turned up outside the window of my friend Tim Fortune’s art studio in downtown Saranac Lake. New York now supports more than seventy breeding peregrine pairs.

Flight Paths: A Field Journal Of Hope, Heartbreak, And Miracles With New York’s Bird People By Darryl McGrath SUNY Press, 2016 Softcover, 378 pages, $24.95
Flight Paths:
A Field Journal
Of Hope, Heartbreak, And Miracles With New York’s Bird People
By Darryl McGrath
SUNY Press, 2016
Softcover, 378 pages, $24.95

The story of bald eagles coming back to New York state and the Adirondacks centers on biologists of the Indiana Jones school. Pete Nye, who came to head the Endangered Species Unit, had gleaned know-how and inspiration from the efforts of Tom Cade. He and colleagues, who included DEC’s Mike Allen and brave field hands such as Lois Goblet, flew to remote places in Alaska where the pesticide DDT had not reached. There they braved gravity and brown bears, climbed a hundred feet and more into towering trees, and collected a baby eagle from each nest they found containing three hatchlings rather than the typical two. The eaglets were given solicitous care and flown back to New York, where they were installed atop so-called hacking towers in the Adirondacks (notably at Follensby Pond, near Tupper Lake) and elsewhere. “The Bald Eagle Restoration Project,” McGrath writes, “would eventually release one hundred and ninety-eight birds in New York, of which one hundred and seventy-five would come from Alaska.”

Today, as a result of those efforts, New York State is home to more than 350 bald eagles at more than 175 nesting sites. Along the Saranac River where I live with my family in the northern Adirondacks, we see one or more bald eagles just about every day if we’re looking. Every time I see them, I tip my hat to Nye, Allen, Goblet, and the others who helped put the national symbol back in Adirondack skies and towering lakeshore pines.

There’s much, much more in McGrath’s Flight Paths and not all of it ends happily. Threats such as windmills, picture windows, housecats, avian botulism, and lead sinkers and pellets in our waterways continue to take an enormous toll on birds in New York State. Still, if author McGrath accomplishes one thing, it’s showing us that people can make a difference—extraordinary people, ones who started off just like the rest of us before they committed themselves heart, soul, and muscle to making a difference.