LONGMONT • The man with the peregrine falcon comes to the desolate fields of winter wheat almost every morning.
Rob Palmer is a tall man, a weathered man, a man who has experienced encounters with birds that go beyond the ordinary. And here he is again, as he is more mornings than not, standing in a deserted field near a grouping of oil tanks as a fresh day yawns open. There is a beautiful, elegant black falcon named Perseus tied to a block perch 15 feet from his vehicle. He struggles occasionally to spread his wings and fly into the cool air, until he realizes his predicament.
Palmer unwraps a dead sparrow — it’s an “invasive species,” he says, with zero trace of remorse about the small bird’s fate as falcon bait. He attaches it to a drone and watches as the machinery whizzes up into the gray-blue sky, the sparrow dangling in the air.
It’s time to fly Perseus. The Longmont resident unties his young falcon, new to him since late August, but the latest in a long string of raptors and birds of prey. Palmer slips on a head cover to calm him and attaches a transmitter to his back in case he decides to become a rebellious teen and fly off. Today’s mission, should Perseus choose to accept it: Fly high enough to nab the sparrow, in which case a small parachute will open and the falcon will land in the field with his dead prey and consume it for breakfast.
“I love doing it,” said the man with the birds in the back of his truck. Not only does he transport Perseus to the deserted field, he also carries homing pigeons for the falcon to chase if he doesn’t accomplish his assigned task. Fear not. The bird of prey won’t catch the pigeons — they’re too fast — but Perseus would get exercised in his attempt to make mincemeat of the cooing birds.
“It never gets old,” Palmer said. “Every day I get to see new stuff.”
The bird takes off. He circles gracefully up and up, about 150 to 200 feet. Will he find the sparrow? Is he even interested? A heavier morning weigh-in suggested he might not be that hungry this morning. But aha. He’s found it. Sparrow nailed. Mission accomplished.
“Perfect,” says Palmer, the proud parent. He walks to the falcon, who sits calmly in the field with his catch, and offers him an even tastier treat — a frozen dead quail — as a reward for his efforts.
Falconry, the hunting of wild animals with a trained bird of prey, makes Palmer radiate with joy. But it doesn’t put food on his table or in the beak of his beloved birds. That comes courtesy of his other lifelong passion: wildlife photography. His photos of birds, particularly raptors and birds of prey, have earned him a name in the business and plenty of awards.
“In falconry I’m known as the photographer,” he said. “I’ve got a huge following of people.”
His books are numerous: “Birds in Flight,” “Sky Hunters: The Passion of Falconry,” “Owls in the Wild,” “Raptors in the Wild,” “American Kestrel: Pint-Sized Predator,” “Raptors of the West.” There’s even a children’s book about swift foxes, “The Tale of Jacob Swift,” which he collaborated on with author Jeff Kurrus.
Palmer’s human life intertwined with the avian dinosaurs when an American kestrel, North America’s smallest and most common falcon, arrived unannounced. Palmer was 12, busily climbing trees and whatnot, when he shimmied up one harboring a baby kestrel. It wasn’t old enough to fly, though, and fell to the ground.
The boy scooped it up, took it home and fed it grasshoppers until the bird was big enough to fly. Then Palmer let it go free, but to no avail. The bird returned every night for five months, swooping in through Palmer’s open bedroom window and sleeping on his bedpost.
And then there was the great horned owlet he found when he was 15. After locating its dead sibling and mother, he took it home, fed it and kept it in a box under his bed. He named the bird Charlie. When he was old enough to fly, Palmer set up a perch in the yard. Charlie would fly around the neighborhood and always come back. He’d sit on the boy’s handlebars while he did his paper route, and he’d follow Palmer’s parents around on their nightly walk.
“It was the coolest pet. Those teen years I just bonded with that,” said Palmer. “I moved on to more different birds. Got a falcon at 18. Got hooked on that, watching them fly. Photography came along with that.”
His first camera was a cheap Polaroid black and white, a gift from his mother. He snapped photos of what else? His feathered friends. He improved his skills by becoming his high school photographer, before getting drafted into the Vietnam War. Assigned to pest control in beatific locations, such as Alaska, he was able to further indulge his love of wildlife photography.
Post-service, he nabbed a college degree in biology and became a science and biology teacher. One layoff later, he was selling pharmaceuticals, a job he lacked any passion for, but one that provided him with the funds to purchase more and better camera equipment. Another layoff, and Palmer, who’d had the wherewithal to start selling his photos by this point, decided to give his hobby full-time attention.
It paid off. Since then he’s traveled the world shooting birds. His photos have been published in Audubon, Birder’s World, American Falconry, National Wildlife and others. He covers the gamut of wildlife, including elk, deer, moose, wild horses and grizzly bears, and helms photography workshops. The ungulates, or hoofed animals, don’t inspire him in the same way a bird does, though. A good action shot of a raptor in flight or interacting with another animal is the good stuff.
“Sometimes I just go down the road and look for birds sitting on poles, like eagles and falcons,” he said. “I just park my car across from them and wait for them to do something. I’ve waited for up to four hours for a bird to do something like that.”
Burrowing owls are his chosen species.
“They’re just so cute. They turn their heads upside down, and you can’t help but laugh.”
Those shots don’t come easy, though, something he often tells amateur photographers who seek him out for advice. Sure, he tells people, you can locate a burrowing owl den (hint: look for prairie dog colonies), and get a photo of an owl standing outside a hole. But you’re not going to to get a more interesting shot, where one owl looks resigned to his photo being taken, while his partner is thrilled to have her photo taken and offers up an adorable head tilt.
“For wildlife photography, you have to be very passionate about wildlife, like a wildlife biologist, where you’re entrenched in taking photos of wild animals,” said Palmer. “Falcons are trained. It’s not hard to get good photos. But wildlife photos of raptors and birds of prey, you’ve got to be spending a lot of time out there.”
And when it comes to wildlife encounter stories, Palmer doesn’t disappoint. There was that run-in with a golden eagle and her baby in their nest. The mother eagle didn’t know he was there, but the baby did, and he got a photo of the youngster looking at him. Golden eagles are usually extremely shy, he says, but not this mom, who decided to rush him. She didn’t make contact, but she came close enough that he could hear her whoosh over his head.
Then there was the great horned owl. During college, Palmer would climb to a nest and take pellets to analyze their diet. One day, when there were 10-day-old babies inside, the mama owl, who usually flew off into a tree 100 yards away, changed tactics. First, she attacked his terrified dog, who ran away, and then she flew directly into Palmer’s back, knocking him out of the tree.
No matter. Sure, it can be dangerous to interact with wild creatures, but he’ll continue to take his chances. Getting the perfect shot is its own reward.
“I’ll die with a camera in one hand and a falcon in the other.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270