For four decades Clayton White has oft taken to the wing in a quest to understand peregrine falcons and mentor fledgling scientists.
For a wingless creature, Clayton M. White has spent a surprising amount of time in the sky, dangling over cliff faces and otherwise catching air in his passionate pursuit of eagles, hawks, and falcons. The wandering zoology professor often uses helicopters, ultralights, or seaplanes to reach his subjects, and he’s not one to complain about the need to occasionally rappel down a rocky crag to peer into a nest.
White admits that he has a recurring dream about flight, a worrisome episode in which he can only move slowly, unable to make it to the plane. But with an early start, today he is airborne, sitting comfortably inside a shiny 737 that hugs the coast of North America en route from Seattle to Fairbanks, in central Alaska.
He first visited Alaska as a graduate student 40 years ago, in the years before a vast pipeline cut across the wilderness, a time when the future of many birds of prey looked bleak. During this critical juncture, when several species were facing extinction, White followed the flight path of the peregrine falcon. He took hops to Alaska and leaps to Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Argentina, and Brazil, all to study the dwindling populations and make recommendations on how to save them.
The name peregrine is derived from the Latin peregrinus, meaning wanderer. The name fits both the migratory bird and the nomadic professor who has visited 58 countries. His recurring trips to Alaska also earned him the name “Birdman of Umiat” after a remote airfield on the North Slope that became a frequent starting point for raptor research.
Four decades of study have made White a recognized expert on raptors, and he is often asked to consult on projects for U.S. government agencies and commercial industries. The latest invitation, from friends at the U.S. Forest Service, is an opportunity to share his expertise and enthusiasm with staffers of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
“One of the most important things you can do is to get a politician out where he can have a hands-on experience in the wild,” says White. The group will spend the day on the Tanana River, searching for fledgling falcons and listening to White talk about the bird’s journey back from the brink of extinction.
Out in the Middle of Nowhere
From the plane’s oval window, White sees the familiar arctic terrain draw closer. Ragged green-brown islands are rimmed with white chunks of glacier that have traveled the muted blue sea and stranded themselves in the shallows. As the coast becomes land, granite peaks and deep valleys, carved by ice and time, emerge through the gray smoke of a nearby forest fire.
On the ground, White makes his way through the streets of Fairbanks. The day is hazy but mild as he heads to a riverside restaurant near the airport to talk over details of the next day’s trip with former grad student Douglas A. “Sandy” Boyce (PhD ’89) and his boss, Thomas M. Quigley.
Boyce, who now heads a Forest Service research lab in Juneau, asks about BYU football and the underground library addition and then starts to rib White, who is seated across from him at a table on the restaurant’s wooden deck.
“Clayton’s office has deep stacks of papers,” says Boyce, explaining White’s filing system. “I’d go in and ask him for a reprint of an article and he would thumb about a quarter of the way down, remove a stack, and pull out the paper. Once, to test my theory that he knew where everything was, I moved an old piece of steel to the left about a foot and put a piece of paper over it. He noticed something was out of place almost immediately.”
White explains, “I have 7,300 reprints, and they are all filed except this one stack. I’ve been in the same office since Sept. 5, 1970, and I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff.”
White has published over 160 articles and coauthored dozens of book chapters. Currently he is coauthor with Tom Cade of Peregrine Falcons of the World, an illustrated book by Cornell University Press. To honor his academic achievements, BYU gave him the Karl G. Maeser Research Award in 1996.
Boyce has shared many adventures, from Argentina to Alaska, with his former professor. He first met White in 1977 when they went looking for gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and rough-legged hawks.
“We went up to Umiat, in the far-northern part of Alaska, where it’s all tundra. It’s just this outpost in the middle of nowhere with a gravel runway,” he recalls. “After we land there, we jump into this helicopter and start flying along the river. And below we start seeing all these grizzly bears along the river.
“After we land Clayton turns to me and says, ‘I want you to go that way,’ but he and the rest of the group go the other way. And I think, ‘Okay, no problem. I’ll just do what he says.’ Soon I’m hiking along through 8- and 9-foot willows and it dawns on me that we’ve just flown over about 10 grizzly bears and he told me to head off that way by myself!”
White interjects, “I had to break him in properly. If you don’t keep them off balance, they get too confident.”
Boyce was the unknowing beneficiary of an ornithologist tradition—fledgling students are urged out to the edge of the cliff to test their wings. White explains that his own mentor, Tom Cade, then a professor at Cornell University, also liked to throw students into research.
“In 1965 Cade asked me to go up and run a project in Alaska on the Yukon River—to collect some falcons and establish baselines for pesticides,” says White. “I was thrown into research and he trusted I could do the work. The fact that he had the confidence I could do it was very good for me.” White has since mentored scores of students—like Boyce—the same way.
Boyce recounts another trip, another flight “way out in the middle of nowhere,” followed by a six-day trip down a shallow river.
“We go down this river against the wind and I see that in the first six hours we’ve used about half to three-quarters of the fuel.” After the first day Boyce decides that to ration fuel they’ll pull the boat; but White hadn’t brought hip boots.
“We went for days while I pulled this boat,” says Boyce. “I’d look behind me and he’d be sitting on the boat and I’d be pulling him down river, thinking, ‘I guess it makes sense; he doesn’t have any hip boots.’”
“There are only two ways to solve that problem,” laughs Clayton. “You can either sit in the boat or you can say, ‘May I borrow your boots?’ But the second option would deprive him of the learning experience.”
The stories and laughter linger into the cool evening. After the meal they discuss the next day’s tour and where they will meet Jim Egan and Diane Hutchinson, staff assistants from Stevens’ regional offices.
“What we want to do is build relationships,” says Quigley. “Having a relationship with them can make a big difference. They are willing to listen and understand the issues and not just go by the rumors.”
After looking at a map with likely falcon eyries circled, the researchers are hopeful. “The timing should be perfect for when the birds are fledging or just fledged,” says Boyce. “But let’s cross our fingers.”
Down on the River
The next morning, the smoky skies begin to clear, appearing a shade lighter than the murky channels of the Tanana River. The group—now with Egan and Hutchinson—boards a lightweight aluminum boat (with plenty of fuel) for a trip down the silty, timber-infested river, where they hope to see Falco peregrinus anatum, the dark-plumaged cousin to the falcon subspecies Falco peregrinus tundrius, which White named back in 1968.
Each year the dynamic Tanana River meanders and splits as it freezes and thaws, creating a turf war between water and land. In the spring the thick ice breaks into chunks that shred and tear at the bank, dislodging both soil and plants. Damaged trees lean dangerously outward and branches and logs float by in the liquid periphery.
Dodging sandbars and floating logs, the guide moves the group down the river for about four miles and then, with a cue from Boyce, idles the craft on a smooth stretch of river bordered by a 90-foot cliff.
“Peregrines are attracted to the cliff,” White says. “That’s called philopatry, the love of one’s home. It brings the falcons back to the same cliff year after year.”
An unimpressive narrow ledge, about 30 feet above the water, is all that marks the falcon eyrie. The nest itself—nothing more than a shallow scrape in the rock surface, just enough to keep an egg from rolling—would be invisible if it weren’t for a single surviving falcon chick. With black wings, buff-colored breast, and fluffy white down on its legs, the fledgling is eating lunch—a green-winged teal—recently delivered by its parents. “This is perfect,” White says. “Peregrines were called duck hawks until about 1950. There’s a classic painting from the early 1800s by John James Audubon that shows two young ones feeding on a duck just like that one.”
As the observers watch from the boat below, the bird eats its fill and then totters awkwardly around the nest with the stiff-legged movements of a creature built to fly, not walk.
For White, who worked on the Tanana River in the 1960s when the birds had all but disappeared here, seeing the young peregrine is a thrill and his voice is enthusiastic as he explains its significance to his appreciative tour group.
For the two political advisors, this exposure to Alaska’s wildlife will enrich their perspectives and inform their opinions. Across the continent, in his
Washington, D.C., office, their boss grapples with sensitive issues, as oil interests and environmental groups lobby hard for their respective positions.
Hutchinson and Egan ask about falcon eggs, flight, and life span. White’s replies are full of details. “Eggs are about the size of a large chicken egg. But these are a spectacular color—a beautiful reddish chestnut, a cinnamon red, with black spots on them—really pretty.”
White looks at the nest with his binoculars. “When they are born, they are all white with fluffy down. They can fly with that on there but normally don’t until black feathers have replaced most of the down.”
A moment later, Egan points to a tall tree at the top right of the cliff and says, “When you get a chance, check out the female. She’s cleaning herself.”
White trains his binoculars on the tree. “She’s just not one bit concerned, is she?”
From her perch on a bare snag, the young falcon’s mother watches over the river and the nest, occasionally preening and stretching.
“Her life span is probably 10 to 12 years,” White says. “The longest we know of is about 18 years in the wild. And longevity depends in part on how many young she raises.”
Then all eyes turn to the sky as a slightly smaller falcon, the adult male, soars in from the horizon. He swoops, screaming in alarm, then speeds upward, talons trailing. His long elliptical passes are dizzying above the boat.
White observes aloud, “When they reach about 200 miles an hour in a dive, they change their configuration by pulling a wing up and becoming asymmetrical, allowing them to go even faster. It is called hyperstreamlining. The maximum speed recorded in a dive is 242.
“If we can get them both in the air, you’ll see that she’s got a much longer tail proportionally than he does and a much lower call. You’ll hear him going ‘cack, cack, cack, cack,’ and she’ll be going ‘cyack, cyack, cyack, cyack.’”
As the male adult continues his surveillance overhead, White pauses a moment to write in his yellow waterproof field notebook. This trip may be more about making friends than gathering scientific data, but the observations are still noteworthy to a researcher who has devoted his life to studying these magnificent birds.
After studying redpoll finches and working on a master’s degree from the University of Alaska in 1963, White conducted high-profile research on wildlife for government agencies and oil industries. He recommended realignment of sections of the Alaskan Pipeline to protect falcons, measured the effects of underground nuclear testing on birds in the Aleutian Islands, and studied the Exxon Valdez disaster’s impact on bald eagles in Prince William Sound.
White became an eyewitness to the peregrine falcon’s hopeful history, watching as falcon populations—which had dropped to just 39 nesting pairs in the western U.S.—began to rebound after the government banned the agricultural pesticide DDT in 1972. Adult birds could endure exposure to DDT, but the chemical made their eggshells too thin to survive.
“I just happened to be studying them at the time so I was kind of at the crest of the wave,” he says. “The solution, very simply, was to ban the chemicals. Now these birds are back in great numbers. They are coming back in higher numbers than we ever thought possible.”
A moment passes with just the river and the cliff and the birds painted against the sky, quiet but for the gurgle of the engine and the light splash of water lapping against the sides of the boat. Unable to contain the perfect moment any longer, White claps his hands and offers an enthusiastic “All right!” His joyful outburst is loud enough that both humans and falcons pause for a moment. “Now, Clayton, don’t get so excited. It’s just a bird,” says Boyce.
White responds with a thoughtful smile: “Yes. But it has godlike characteristics.”
Boyce later says, “He’s been studying the peregrine for almost five decades. When you understand something that deeply, you have a sense of awe about it. You can see why Clayton would have a great deal of respect for a bird like that.”
On their visit to the falcons on the Tanana, Egan and Hutchinson have seen firsthand how informed policy making in Washington, such as the decision to ban DDT, can affect wildlife populations. Such informed politicians will be important in the environmental challenges ahead, says Boyce.
The Pipeline and Preserving Alaska
The sun never sinks below the horizon during the Alaskan summer night, and the new day arrives without the fanfare of dawn. The relationship-building expedition over, today White will make a quick tourist stop at the Alaska Pipeline, which winds for 800 miles over mountain ranges and rivers, from the oil-producing fields of the North Slope to Prince William Sound on the southern coast.
On a drive north to the pipeline on the corrugated, weather-warped Steese Highway, White explains his role in its construction. In 1975, he worked for the Department of Energy, researching the proposed pipeline route. “My job was mainly to find out where peregrine falcons and other birds might be nesting relative to the pipeline, make some predictions, and recommend how to lessen its impact on wildlife.”
Once he reaches the pipeline, White parks on a gravel maintenance road and surveys the line for a moment, his boots crunching in the gravel as he strides past the massive man-made phenomenon. Light rain drips down the sides of the 48-inch-diameter carbon steel pipe; vibrant scarlet blooms of Alaskan fireweed reach up on tall stems from a green carpet of moss and lichen-covered soil.
“Many of the dire predictions have turned out not to be true. One was that caribou would see the pipeline and be afraid of it,” says White, noting that the line was elevated to allow for migration of Alaska’s large caribou herds. “The fact is that they often don’t use the special crossways built for them, and they just go under the line instead. They stand there for the shade, too.”
Through his experiences, White has gained a practical, balanced vision of the environment, but that doesn’t mean he favors industry at any cost. When the latest budget resolution included a provision that would allow oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), he shared his frustration in a Daily Universe article. “Congress didn’t vote on ANWR, they voted on a budget. There is 73 percent of the Northern Slope that is already available for drilling. My question is, ‘Why do they have to go into the other 27 percent?’”
Later, in a guest column in the Daily Herald, White explained that the United States has but one chance remaining to keep, for who knows how many generations, the country’s remaining intact block of Arctic habitat. “The question really is not one of birds, caribou, or other animals,” he wrote, “but rather the inheritance that we leave others in a busy world, an inheritance that will have increasing value in the long term.”
“Because of all his travels and his strong bonds with people in other countries, Clayton is concerned for the world at large,” says his wife, Merle, who works as an advisor in BYU’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. “I think that’s part of the reason he has such strong feelings about the drilling in Alaska. It’s an educated vision of what’s happening from someone who has worked in Alaska, has studied the habitats, studied the wildlife, but it’s also personal.”
From the pipeline, White heads south, back through Fairbanks and past North Pole, Alaska. This trip to Alaska is quickly drawing to a close but White has learned of another active falcon eyrie right by the Richardson Highway. As he nears the designated mile marker, an F-16 Viper from nearby Eielson Air Force Base can be seen cruising just above the horizon.
Unlike the Tanana River eyrie, this nesting site is on a small cliff just 100 yards off the busy road. Through his binoculars White spots three young falcons, two dark ones and one that is almost completely down-covered. The birds seem unruffled by the noise of the nearby traffic.
“When those young grow up,” White says, “they’ll come back and find yet a punier cliff because all the big cliffs will be occupied. This is unbelievable. I could almost walk into that nest site, but I would get soaking wet because of the rain on that thick brush.”
Unable to resist, White crosses the road and disappears into the trees. Moments later the female falcon flies from her bare snag. The male soon joins in the aerial display, and they both swoop and scream overhead. White carefully works his way in to get a closer view of the eyrie and contemplate the future of the three young falcons.
In a few short months, this family of birds living in arctic Alaska will migrate over 7,000 miles, perhaps as far as Argentina, before the cold winter. Next spring they will return to compete for the same narrow cliffs, then breed and raise young. Chances are Clayton White will find a reason to fly in and see how they are doing.
Fly over to magazine.byu.edu/extras for video of Alaskan falcons as well as stories about the missing mountain plovers of Utah and Clayton White at home.
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