By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
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Chris Comeaux has lived all of his 50 years in Port Bolivar, a sleepy shrimping community on the west end of the Bolivar Peninsula. He lives about a mile from the lighthouse, and has more relatives than he can count among Bolivar's thousand or so residents.
As a 17-year-old in 1970, he used a shotgun to down a red-tailed hawk attacking his cousin's pet raccoons. The experience changed him forever. He ended up nursing the bird back to health, removing pellets from its wing and releasing it back into the wild. Now everyone knows him as the guy with the birds: three hybrid peregrine falcons kept and trained by Comeaux to hunt for their meals.
For some three decades, the master falconer has been devoted to a hobby that combines nature with blood sport. During the fall and winter hunting seasons, Comeaux unleashes his birds on the peninsula. They circle hundreds of feet above their prey, abruptly dive-bombing at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour. Glance away for half a second and they're gone.
The one-and-a-half-pound birds strike knuckles first, often snatching prey in midair. Death is swift and feathers fly.
"The ducks are just coming off the water," says Comeaux. "He knocks 'em smooth out."
Most falconers say the spectacular action can't be described, only experienced. While the falcons have become popular icons for the locals, the peninsula's largest landowner -- the Houston Audubon Society -- doesn't share that fascination about captive wild raptors released solely to kill other birds. Comeaux has been warned that he will be prosecuted if he brings his birds on Audubon land that's used as a bird sanctuary.
"They're magnificent wild birds that shouldn't be kept," says Winnie Burkett, manager of the Audubon Society's 1,800 acres at Bolivar. Most of that land used to be prime hunting ground, but the birders have posted lots of "No Hunting" signs in recent years.
Audubon societies have local autonomy, but the Houston group believes that because Comeaux's falcons are well kept and fed in a relatively stress-free environment, they have an unfair advantage over wild birds of prey. "They lead a cushy life," says Burkett.
A federal environmental impact study concluded that falconry has "no impact" on wild raptor populations, although that doesn't sway Burkett. "That's our policy: no hunting," she says. "Hunting is hunting even if it's bird-on-bird."
During next fall's hunting season, it's a safe bet that Comeaux's falcons will turn several migrating birds into dead ducks -- on Audubon property. The society started buying Bolivar land in 1997, and has created the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, now recognized as one of the nation's ten most important bird refuges.
In September, the birders bought 650 wetland acres known as Horseshoe Marsh. It's right across the street from Comeaux's home and borders other property he hunts. Once he untethers his falcons, he has little control over exactly where they will strike. And he estimates that he will take them out to hunt about 50 times a year, mostly during the winter.
Comeaux says the Galveston County sheriff told him that if one of his birds ventured onto Audubon land he was allowed to retrieve it and its kill. "He told me not to bother calling them if that happened -- just go get my bird." Comeaux has already done that once.
But the law isn't clear. Hunters who don't make a reasonable effort to locate downed game are subject to fines, yet they sometimes have to trespass to do that. As a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says, "It's a catch-22. They're in violation either way."
Falcons are trained to stand guard over a kill until their owner arrives, even if that makes them vulnerable to attack by raptors or other animals. They'll eventually eat it, but not until Comeaux says so.
The very idea of leaving one of his beloved birds in the field is unthinkable to Comeaux. "Even if I have to go to jail, I'm going to get my bird."
Burkett has made it known that the Audubon Society is serious about unauthorized use of its land, especially regarding hunting and dumping. "We will prosecute," she says. "Once everybody knows we'll prosecute, that stuff stops."
Friction between locals and the Audubon Society started long before the falcon flap. In 1985, the organization gained a resolution from Galveston County commissioners to restrict vehicle access to the beach fronting the Bolivar mud flats.
Many local residents say that at public hearings the Audubon Society misrepresented its intentions. They say that the plan presented in Bolivar was to place barriers around some inland nesting areas, not the beach itself.
Galveston County put up signs prohibiting vehicles in 1985, although they were often ignored. Burkett says that off-road vehicles, gaining access from the beach, were destroying critical nesting places and that some folks used the area as a trash dump.
At the organization's urging, in 1986 the county planted telephone-pole-thick pylons every few feet along the beach. That effectively blocked access, although it left many residents with the feeling they were being pushed around by outsiders. Sonny Norrell, a former hunting guide who runs a water park near Crystal Beach, says birders have "virtually ruined hunting on the peninsula." He characterizes the Audubon Society as "a bunch of snooty people that don't care about the local people who grew up with hunting as a way of life."
Bolivar residents mostly hunt to eat, and they're accustomed to hunting pretty much wherever they please. Land owners rarely cared where their neighbors hunted. Much of the land purchased by the Audubon Society was prime hunting ground because it either had been in bankruptcy or was owned by the state.
"For years, people have pretty much done what they wanted down there," says Burkett, "and they're afraid of change."
Comeaux can't travel long distances to hunt, in part because he provides 24-hour care for his invalid mother and he's on disability, with chronic foot pain from a motorcycle accident. And the nearby hunting land is rapidly disappearing.
In 2000, Comeaux was flying his falcon in a pasture then co-owned by the Audubon Society and a local rancher. When he returned to his truck he found a note from Burkett telling him he was trespassing.
He wasn't. Comeaux had the rancher's permission, so he ignored the note and others later left by Burkett -- one telling him to take his bird "somewhere else." Burkett tours the Audubon property at least once a week and has left lots of notes on lots of windshields.
Burkett says that the birders prefer guided tours and that liability insurance costs have made it necessary to restrict public access on some properties. "If they want to come on our land," she says, "they should call and ask permission."
Comeaux didn't call Burkett, but he did join the Houston Audubon Society. He tried an end run by asking Audubon's national office for a sort of member's exemption. They referred him to Burkett. "She's got total control," he says.
Last year, the birders divided the property they'd previously co-owned with Comeaux's rancher friend. When Burkett spotted Comeaux there, she confronted him and told him he was trespassing. This time he was, albeit unknowingly.
"He went into a tirade about how falconers are good people," Burkett says of their meeting.
Peregrine falcons and bald eagles were once endangered species. Falconers were instrumental in stabilizing some populations by breeding them in captivity and releasing them. So it seems cruelly ironic to Comeaux that a group of birders is preserving his lifelong hunting grounds, yet he and his birds aren't welcome there.
But Comeaux says the peninsula's rural lifestyle was probably doomed anyway. "It's the lesser of two evils," he says of the group. "If they didn't buy it, some rich asshole would buy it and put houses everywhere. I prefer it the way it is now over that."