This month is the fourth June in a row I've spent as much time as possible in a small park overlooking the western tip of Lake Superior. Watching the Lake is always a favorite activity, but in June I'm usually facing the other way to watch the activities at a peregrine falcon nesting box at the top of a 14 story building.
Naturalists from Hawk Ridge, one of the best locations in the country to watch the fall raptor migration, provide the use of spotting scopes and lots of information about the birds. Most hours are spent watching the adult falcons sit on buildings, but over the years I've witnessed many spectacular flights including hunts, aerial food transfers, and territory defenses against eagles, hawks, and other falcons. The funniest moments are provided by each year's new fledglings. These have ranged from one who spent a day running back and forth on the building's ledge before flying, to a couple other youngsters who wound up waddling around in the park we watch from.
Thursday was banding day for this year's nestlings. I arrived in the park a few hours early but the falcons weren't moving--Amy, the mother (officially numbered when banded, these falcons are also named for convenience when talking about them), spent two hours next to the nest box, while Dad (never banded) remained at his usual location on a tower a few blocks away where we can watch him through a different scope.
About an hour before the scheduled banding by the Raptor Resource Project, Amy suddenly flew off and returned almost instantly with a rock pigeon which she began plucking on the corner of the building. A second pigeon landed nearby in a spot where I rarely see one and remained for a few moments before flying off alone.
I believed this to be the mate (or maybe just a good friend) of the one being plucked. I have no problem with predation but I retain sympathy for the prey and her/his survivors, and I'm always secretly annoyed with visitors who enthusiastically want the falcons to "kill all the pigeons and seagulls". But for every visitor like that, there's one like the man who last week told me I'd made his day when I pointed out the falcons to him. He enjoyed watching Animal Planet but didn't realize what was happening right around him. It's rewarding to see someone get excited about the natural world.
As banding time drew closer, we moved from the park to the roof of a parking garage where we had a closer and straighter view of the box. The nest box has a camera in it, and in past years, we've had a monitor in the park which allowed us to see what was happening inside the nest box. Due to lack of funding, that has been missing so far this year (it's coming soon) so we weren't sure how many nestlings there were. For the past several years four eggs have been hatched by this pair each year, but we'd only spotted three white heads at once this year--soon we'd find out for the first time how many there really were.
Here you see how the nest box is reached--not a job you could pay me enough to consider.
One by one, the nestlings are removed from the box and placed in a carrier. Here's a view through a scope.
As we watched, Amy (the human the falcon was named after) pulled out one . . . two . . . three . . . and yes, four white handfuls. A cheer went up among us as she pulled the fourth one out. As you can imagine, the falcon mother doesn't appreciate this process and repeatedly swoops into the scene--last year she took the hat off a bander's head. At one point this year, she actually landed at the opposite end of the nest box.
Usually the banding is done right on the roof with the adults circling and diving overhead but because this season's events are being filmed for the local PBS show Venture North, the birds were taken inside to be banded. This gave me the chance to be present during the banding for the first time.
We gathered in a small hallway as the eyases were taken one by one from the carrier and banded. This one waits for his brother to get banded so they can get back where they belong.
Those big white feet will turn yellow as he gets older, and you can see some of his feathers starting to emerge from the fluff. It takes about six weeks from hatching to first flight and he's probably about 2 1/2 weeks into the process here. But if you think he's a cuddly little baby, the bander's bloody hands would convince you otherwise. Take a closer look at that beak.
After all four (two male and two female, with one of the females already huge compared to her siblings) were banded they were quickly returned to their nest box, their entire time out of the box amounting to about a half hour. Back over on the parking garage, we watched Mom check on her young, did some interviews for the TV show, and started wondering what sights we'd be treated to the next day.
Most of the photos here are courtesy of the naturalists from Hawk Ridge. The close-up is from professional photographer Mike Furtman and I strongly urge you to go to his site where about thirty photos will take you through the event much better than my words could. Along with the banding, you'll see a falcon's view of the Lake and many flight photos including nest box defense. And to read Amy's great account of what it's like to stand on the ledge while being attacked by the falcon, go here.
"Look, Ma, it's a treehugger!"
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