Monday, January 5, 2015

Peregrine falcons: making a living in New Jersey

January is always a great time for birders, despite the prevailing cold weather in New Jersey. Those of us who keep lists of species we see during the year start from a clean slate, and a sighting of a common House Sparrow or Rock Pigeon on New Year's Day is just as exciting as finding the rarest of the rare at any other time.

Funny thing is, this year started with an unusually large number of birds not always commonly found. Sure, we'd probably see them at some point in the spring, or maybe even February if we were lucky, but our January 1 jaunt around Morris County and Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge yielded some beautiful early views. For example, we spotted individuals from three different owl species, already more than I'd seen all of last year. Two days later, I got my first-ever look at an Orange-crowned Warbler, an infrequent visitor to the state at this time of year.

This Peregrine Falcon regularly perches
on the Statue of Liberty's Crown
in New York Harbor and visits Ellis Island, too.
The ones that truly got me, however, were the Peregrine Falcons we spotted first at DeKorte Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, and then at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus. It was the first time I could remember seeing Peregrines at two different locations on the same day.

Some folks may rave over Bald Eagles (and rightly so), but there's a special place in my heart for Peregrines. The world's fastest bird when it goes into a dive to snatch prey, this impressive falcon made its home on the cliffs of the Palisades before falling victim to hunters, egg collectors and the pesticide DDT. Once common, the species was virtually eliminated from the Eastern United States by the 1960s. As with the Bald Eagle and Osprey, biologists worked to reintroduce the species after DDT was banned, aiming to raise the population to eight to ten pairs statewide.

My own interest in Peregrines was piqued about 20 years ago, when a coworker mentioned he'd helped a team from the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife band some chicks at a nest in Kearny. An adult pair had chosen to raise their young high up on a wall of an electric generating station, and my friend had a video of the process where biologists fit the young with avian ID bracelets for future study. I was transfixed watching the little ones, both fuzzy-cute and fierce, as well as the mother, whose protests were silenced merely by draping an old towel over her head. The leg banding struck me as a ritual that demonstrates the careful balance between humans and the creatures we share the world with. They trust the banders to do no harm; banders respond with care and continued stewardship.

From there, I started noticing more and more references to Peregrines popping up. While some have returned to nest on the Palisades, others have found manmade cliffs -- skyscrapers and bridges -- equally as suitable for bringing up their young. Jersey City's 101 Hudson Street building has hosted a nestbox and nest cam for several years, allowing fans to follow the progress from egg laying to fledging young from a safe distance. Another acquaintance reported being startled by a rapidly diving bird picking off a pigeon not 10 feet away as he was eating his own lunch outside an office building in Newark.

Peregrines are still on New Jersey's Endangered Species List, but their numbers continue to grow. While we were gazing at the individual perched atop a railroad bridge crossing the Hackensack River near Laurel Hill, I wondered whether it was related to the one we'd just seen on a high-voltage tower a few miles away at DeKorte. Had they hatched in Jersey City, or maybe upriver in a box below the Route 3 bridge? Were they related to the Kearny Generating Station chicks in my friend's video? Or maybe they'd come all the way from the Palisades, their eggs laid in nests built where so many generations had started life for eons?

We could have found out, if we'd been able to read the birds' bands for their distinctive ID numbers, but it's just as well we didn't. It's the possibilities that make me truly happy for the Peregrines' viability in New Jersey. In a marshland that is, itself, in recovery, these amazing creatures are making their way.

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