MIDDLESEX - Utilizing an extensive contact network built up during the course of a 20-plus year career in wildlife photography, Woburn resident John Harrison travels extensively around New England to capture shots of large raptors and other rarely seen bird species.
But when it comes to documenting the habits and lifecycles of Peregrine Falcons, Harrison believes there is no better place than his new hometown to zoom in on a pair of the majestic birds of prey as they nest down to raise a group of hatchlings each spring.
In fact, according to the city resident, who was interviewed by The Middlesex East as he ventured around Durham, N.H. to chase down a tip about a rare sighting of Mississippi Kites, a vertical rock outcropping behind a nondescript office park in East Woburn might be one of the best places on the planet to observe wild Peregrine Falcons.
For those who might doubt those claims, Harrison and fellow area wildlife photographer Kim Nagy have more than enough stunning close-ups of the birds to back up their assertions. Indeed, they captured so many awe-inspiring shots that they based an entire children’s book, “Wally & Wind of the Woburn Cliffs: The True Story of a Peregrine Falcon Family”, from their 2018 experiences at the Micro Drive site.
“I’ve been watching them there since 2016,” said Harrison, who along with Nagy, joined with a number of wildlife photographers this spring to watch as “Wally” and “Wind” came together to raise four more chicks.
“Being wildlife photographers, we’re always looking for new places and species. This is a magnificent species, and I think the Woburn cliffs is probably the best place in the world to view these birds. The cliffs aren’t too high, and this year, the nest [was built in] a perfect spot for us. It was right in the center and lower than it was most years.”
Featuring the work of at least 19 colleagues, Nagy and Harrison’s photographs from the Woburn cliffs in 2018 are on 17 of the 40 illustrated pages within the new children’s book, which tells the story of a Peregrine Falcon mating pair as they nested down on the rock face.
Part of the photography and business partners’ “True Wildlife Series”, the newest Peregrine Falcon release is the fourth children’s book from Nagy and Harrison.
Besides describing the nesting and hunting rituals of “Wally” and “Wind”, the book also narrates the first days of life for three chicks as they slowly moved towards “fledging day” or first flight.
Included in the book is a number of facts about the falcons, which are shared by naturalists like former Mass. wildlife division assistant director Dr. Tom French, who in 2018 oversaw efforts to tag the three falcon chicks at the Woburn cliffs.
In one such surprising informational snippet, those consulted for the book explained that Peregrine Falcons are technically the fastest animal on the entire planet. Surviving by dive-bombing down upon its prey — mostly smaller birds — wildlife experts say the average crow-sized raptor can reach speeds of up to 200 mph while plummeting out of the skies.
According to Harrison, who has now seen the Woburn falcons perform the death-defying maneuvers more times than he can count, he still feels a rush of excitement every time he sees the animals plummeting towards the earth.
“They’ll be way up in the sky and just tuck in their wings. It’s like watching a tomahawk missile come out of the sky. It’s exhilarating and it never gets old.
“It was really a bonanza for us. That’s why I really say there probably isn’t a better place in the world to photograph this species,” added Harris of the whole Woburn cliffs experience in 2018.
A life-changing conversation
According to the Woburn resident, a Medford native, he was a successful manager of a local book distribution company for nearly a quarter-century when some passing small talk between himself and a client would change his life.
Specifically, Harrison in 2000 had reached out to Bentley University professor Pierce Butler to arrange the pickup of several autographed books for distribution at area gift shops and book stores when his client urged him to visit Mount Auburn Cemetery.
The U.S. Navy veteran, who had been hearing about the perfectly manicured gardens of the cemetery for years, was largely dismissive of the entire idea. But Butler insisted the book distributor check out the beautiful landscapes around the cemetery for himself.
“I said to him, ‘Pierce, I’ve been hearing about Mt. Auburn Cemetery my whole life. But a cemetery is a cemetery,’” recalled the author, whose first book with Nagy would later end-up being a collection of essays about the national landmark.
“That passing remark utterly changed my life,” continued Harrison, who ended-up snapping some photographs of birds and other wildlife after following the professor’s advice. “I was hooked.”
Though continuing his work as a book distributor, Harrison, who had until his first visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery considered photography an enjoyable activity, soon realized he had just accidentally discovered his true vocation in taking wildlife photos.
Nearly 15 years later, after acclimating himself to a whole new career and host of colleagues in the bird-watching community, Harrison met Nagy. At the time, Nagy, who in 2015 was moving from Florida to Massachusetts and looking for ways to get involved with other passionate wildlife photographers, was told by a mutual acquaintance to consider reaching out to the Medford native.
“One day, when I was going back to Fresh Pond [in Cambridge] where there was this Great Horned Owl, a young one fell out of the nest [and there was a scramble to return it safely]. I ended up saying to Kim, I think that would be a great kids story. She ended up writing it [right after],” Harrison later said of his partnership with Nagy.
Reflecting on how much his life has changed by just following some simple advice from a work colleague, Harrison hopes other will follow in his footsteps and see just how reconnecting with nature can completely reinvigorate people’s lives.
“For anyone who’s never thought about bird watching or is uneducated about it, they should really try it. It really draws you in. If you’ve never done it, I’d urge you to give it a try,” he said.
Those looking to purchase Harrison and Nagy’s newest children’s book or any of their previous works can do so through major online retailers like Amazon. Other books include adult reading options like “Dead in Good Company”, a compilation of essays by prominent figures about Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown. To see some of the authors’ photographs, see their Facebook page at facebook.com/DeadInGoodCompany.