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Falcon Watch Wrap-Up: Four Young Peregrines Take to the Sky, with a Little Help from Friends

June 20, 2019 12:00 PM

Falcon Watch Wrap-Up: Four Young Peregrines Take to the Sky, with a Little Help from Friends

​Yellow collided with the church; we’re on our way. Blue went down in the parking garage. Check out White, flying in circles with the adults. Where’s Red? She’s been missing for hours. Yellow’s flying with flair. What a relief, Red’s returned! All four are flying well now!

Red Ledge.jpgThis was life at an encampment of volunteers and DEP staff and interns in lawn chairs stationed between the Amtrak station and Rachel Carson State Office Building (RCSOB) in Harrisburg from May 31 to June 10. The crew had staked out the spot to observe four young peregrine falcons making their first attempts to fly from their nest high above on the 15th floor of the Carson building and, in the event of a misadventure, carry out a rescue.

They may be the world’s fastest animals, but even peregrines have crash landings when they’re young and testing their wings. Since this can be fatal in a city environment of cars and concrete, the DEP Environmental Education and Information Center (EEIC), which is housed in the RCSOB, has organized Falcon Watch and Rescue every spring since shortly after the nest was established in 1996.

Peregrine falcons, once eliminated from the eastern United States by DDT use, have been making a steady comeback since a federal ban on this pesticide in 1972.  In March, the Pennsylvania Game Commission upgraded their status in the state from endangered to threatened.

Falcon Watch is a contributing factor. “With seventy-two hatches over the years, the Harrisburg nest is the most successful peregrine nest in the state,” said Bert Myers, DEP Environmental Education Director. “Because Falcon Watch helps to ensure that most of the fledglings survive, we’re playing a role in returning peregrines to Pennsylvania.”

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Life on Falcon Watch

Yellow on Roof.jpgAlmost 40 people participated in Falcon Watch this year, including a handful who’ve volunteered for many years, such as Sue Hannon, Renee Larry, Jane Barnette, Jo Anne Mroczka, and Tina and Jose Cole.

Directed by the EEIC and coordinated by Hannon, volunteers took shifts from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm daily.  With binoculars turned to the sky, walkie-talkies in hand, and nets ready, they continuously observed the birds, named Red, White, Blue, and Yellow for the color of their leg bands. They logged details such as when each bird attempted flights; where it landed; and parental feedings, playing, and other activities.

As the peregrines figured out this flying thing, they didn’t always land where they aimed. When mishaps occurred, volunteers raced to the rescue, whether the fall was 25 feet away or several blocks. Over the 11 days of Falcon Watch, the volunteers made seven rescues on streets, on the tops of buildings and garages, and in shrubbery.

Since peregrines are a federally and state protected species and because they can easily inflict bodily harm with their talons, only trained volunteers can capture a stranded fledgling, following a strict protocol.

Renee Yellow.jpgRenee Larry, a statistician at DEP who took vacation time to participate in Falcon Watch, is one of them. “I’ve run out in the street and blocked traffic to throw my coat over falcons to take them to safety. I also help take them back to the nest on the roof. The Harrisburg falcons are my passion,” she said.

Two student interns who participated in Falcon Watch enjoyed the educational experience.

“More than a few passersby stopped to ask what we were doing,” said Sarah Cutshall, from the University of Pittsburgh. “This was an excellent opportunity to share our binoculars and educate them about the falcons’ history.”

“It’s been nerve-wracking but rewarding to follow the birds, log their activities, and help make sure they remained safe in their first flights,” said Sarah Dropkin, from Shippensburg University. 

Falcon Watch came to a close on June 11, as all four young peregrines had mastered their initial fledging. The birds are still coming and going from their nest, strengthening their wings and skills and developing into the world’s fastest animals. Soon they’ll depart for broader horizons. 

Where Will the Falcons Go? This Year, We’ll Know

Red Tracker.jpgPeople often ask where the peregrines go after they become proficient flyers and leave the Harrisburg area. This year, the EEIC is excitedly looking forward to sharing updates on three of the falcons’ whereabouts.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission was able to apply Motus Wildlife Tracking System nanotags to Blue, Red, and White during rescues. These tags send signals several times a minute to radio telemetry stations in hundreds of locations for 500 days. Motus is the latest in tracking technology, and DEP and the Game Commission expect the findings to provide greater insight into peregrine falcon behavior. 

“It’s yet another role for the Carson building in the forefront of peregrine falcon research,” said Game Commission biologist Art McMorris. 

So stay tuned, Harrisburg falcon fans! And for photos, videos, and more information on the #HbgFalcons, visit dep.pa.gov/falcons and follow the falcons on Twitter at @FalconChatter!

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