[va-bird] VA-Bird ers in the Washington Post
- From: "P R Mocko" <paulbirds19@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- To: va-bird@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 17 Apr 2006 13:32:21 -0400
Technically in DC, but viewed from VA, and the article quotes two notable VA
birders, Paula Sullivan and Shawn Padgett:
Falcons Trading Wild Life for Urban Perches
Peregrines Drawn to D.C. Area Roosts
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006; C03
Stephanie R. Spears leaned over the side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge with a
video camera as the drawspan opened to let a construction barge pass
through. Spears, an environmental specialist with the bridge replacement
project, was looking for the pair of peregrine falcons nesting there when
suddenly one of them came after her.
The shrieking bird with a sharp beak and hooked talons shot into the air,
wheeled around and dived. "Watch your head!" Spears shouted to a handful of
onlookers just as the female falcon veered away. Peregrines are said to be
the fastest birds on Earth, capable of diving at 200 mph. This one was
protecting three eggs.
The eggs are on a jumble of powdery road grit inside one of the bridge's
concrete supports, only a few feet down from the rumble and shake of
thousands of vehicles a day crossing between Maryland and Virginia. "It's an
interesting place to make a nest," Spears said. "It's probably why she gets
nervous when we stop traffic -- it's so quiet."
The Wilson Bridge is a dangerous place for a bird, but more of the region's
peregrines are nesting on bridges, skyscrapers or other manmade structures
than on the mountain cliffs that are their natural homes. Falcons are living
on more than a dozen bridges in Maryland and Virginia and have made nests on
tall buildings in Baltimore and Richmond.
The falcons' willingness to live near people and noise has let them thrive
in an urban region. But it has frustrated state wildlife biologists who have
tried in vain to get them to nest in the back country.
It is harder for a falcon to make a living on a mountain than in an urban
area, said researcher Shawn Padgett. "They can't just take a plunge off a
bridge and get a starling going by," he said. "They have to go out and
The Wilson Bridge peregrines, like the bald eagles that have a nest near the
bridge, have an avid fan club. Paula Sullivan of Alexandria visits Jones
Point Park on the Alexandria shoreline several times a week to watch the
peregrines through a spotting scope and to trade stories about them with
people fishing there.
"The first time I saw the bird come in with prey, it really screamed -- I
assume to announce its arrival," she said. "Feathers were flying in all
directions. My assumption was that it was a pigeon. . . . It's really
thrilling. I've gotten such an enormous kick out of it."
This is the second year that peregrine falcons have nested on the
55-foot-tall bridge. This year's eggs are due to hatch early next month. The
birds laid eggs last year that vanished -- taken, Spears thinks, by
Spears has seen raccoons walking the girders under the existing bridge and
says they could use the span to traverse the Potomac -- just like humans. In
many ways, the bridge is a miniature ecosystem of predators and prey.
Pigeons and rats live there. Waterfowl linger under it, and gulls fly over
it to scout for trash.
Construction workers on the bridge being built near the existing one have
not found where the raccoons live, but they have learned to lock up their
food after the creatures broke into their lunchboxes to eat their
sandwiches. The raccoons have left their distinctive paw prints -- the front
one resembling a human hand and the rear one a footprint -- in fresh
concrete on the new bridge.
Life on the bridge meets the falcons' three basic needs: a rough surface
with good drainage to lay their eggs, a high perch from which to hunt and a
good food supply of other birds. The Wilson Bridge peregrines often sit atop
200-foot-tall construction cranes, even riding them as the cranes move along
the Potomac River by barge. The falcons have made a noticeable dent in the
bridge's pigeon population, but they also grab gulls and songbirds.
Once so rare that there were no breeding pairs east of the Mississippi, the
peregrine falcon population has rebounded in the past three decades after
the deadly pesticide DDT was banned. They were taken off the federal
endangered species list in 1999.
Padgett said there are at least eight pairs making their home on bridges in
Virginia and about the same number in Maryland, including on the Bay Bridge
and a bridge off Baltimore Harbor. Padgett, a research associate at the
Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, plans to
check a report of a pair of peregrine falcons on a highway bridge leading
into the District from Virginia.
"Just looking at D.C., I can tell you there have to be more," he said. "We
are looking for other pairs in the city."
But Padgett, whose center is deputized by the state to implement peregrine
recovery efforts in Virginia, is concerned that more falcons are not nesting
in the wild. So is Glenn D. Therres, the Maryland Department of Natural
Resources associate director for wildlife.
In recent years, both states have removed baby falcons from nests on bridges
and placed them in group nestboxes on mountain cliffs, where they are fed
dead birds and have little interaction with people. The birds leave when
they are able to fly on their own, and state officials hoped they would
return when they were old enough to breed. The technique, called "hacking,"
has a proven track record.
Maryland has tried it for three years near Harpers Ferry, and although the
first year's birds would be expected to return by now, none has. Virginia
placed more than 60 birds in Shenandoah National Park in the past six years,
and Padgett said only one pair returned to nest there, but others have been
seen in urban areas.
"There's some art to this technique," said Therres, who has not given up on
getting birds to live in the wild. "The theory is, you get birds acclimated
to the cliff faces so they know to come back to them. But we really don't
know when and at what age they actually imprint on the kind of habitat they
should come back to."
Padgett said bridge life is perilous for baby falcons, which can easily
drown or be killed in traffic when they try to fly. Most peregrine chicks
die before they reach 6 months, he said. "It's definitely a bad setup," he
said of the Wilson Bridge nest.
And although the odds for baby chicks also are bad in the mountains, Padgett
said that is where falcons belong. He hopes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, which oversees the falcon population, will choose to remove the
Wilson Bridge chicks from their current location and put them in a nestbox
in Shenandoah National Park.
Sullivan, who has posted photos of the birds on her Web site,
said she has mixed feelings about any attempt to remove the birds. "I'd love
to see them have success where they are," she said. "I know there are
experts who I trust to make the right decision. They seem so determined to
do the best for the bird."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
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