Photograph by Larry Master
Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring, which documented the dangers of pesticides, birds of prey have rebounded across New York. One of those—the peregrine falcon, an iconic hunter and flier—has come back from the brink of extinction, to the point that the raptor now nests on every Hudson River bridge south of Albany. New York City, where the falcons lay their eggs on ledges of tall buildings, is said to have the largest urban population of peregrine falcons in the world.
But those bridges and buildings are stand-ins for the birds’ natural nesting sites. In the Adirondacks, they use cliffs and other rock faces as nature intended. Every spring, they create so-called “scrapes” for their eggs (as opposed to nests made from sticks) by scratching away dirt and rocks on ledges hundreds of feet off the ground.
“They prefer the highest and most sheer of the cliffs,” explained Eric Teed, a naturalist who has advised the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), both formally and informally, on peregrine falcons in the Adirondacks. He has studied the birds for two decades, sometimes spending several hours a day observing and recording the behavior of a single breeding pair. “Peregrine falcons will always be limited by nesting availability,” he added. “They need either a cliff or a building or a bridge. In the Adirondacks, we have cliffs.”
To be sure, there is perhaps no better place to see peregrines strut their stuff than in the Adirondacks. The falcon’s speed, which can exceed 200 miles an hour, is unmatched by any other animal. The bird’s courtship rituals involve mid-air acrobatics: the male proffers prey to the female in flight and she accepts it with an aerial flip. The falcon’s hunting prowess makes Top Gun look like child’s play, as it descends at high speeds to grab its next meal—namely other birds.
The DEC has identified some 40 eyries, or nests, in the Adirondacks, where the falcons had disappeared by the 1960s. Unlike other raptors, including bald eagles, the falcons are extremely territorial. In the Adirondacks at least, the breeding pairs need a lot of elbow room, with a five-mile radius around their nests without other peregrines, for a prosperous mating season.
But the sheer cliffs preferred by peregrine falcons are also popular among climbers. State environmental officials have had to balance the needs of the birds with the growing interest in rock-climbing. In spring the state updates signs at trailheads and posts information online about closed climbing routes at eight popular climbing areas, mostly in the eastern and central Adirondacks.
Once the active nests are identified, state officials refine the closures by designating a buffer zone on either side of the peregrine pair. For the most part, climbers, who risk fines if they ignore the closures, are happy to oblige. Edging too close to a peregrine eyrie can trigger aggressive behavior on the part of the birds. “The peregrines will bomb you,” said Royce Van Evera, a climber and mountain guide who helps the state fine-tune the climbing restrictions. “It happened to me before the DEC started closing areas.”
At Poke-O-Moonshine, in the town of Chesterfield, there are typically two dozen climbing routes marked off-limits across the granite cliffs during breeding season.
Last June, John Milo, a fish and wildlife technician for the DEC, was looking through a spotting scope on the side of the road at the base of Poke-O-Moonshine. He was waiting for a pair of peregrine falcons to reappear. The birds were still together even though their eyrie had apparently not produced any young. (No one was quite sure why; the hatchlings might have been washed off the ledge during a storm, or a raven could have snatched the eggs.) Whatever the cause of the failure, Milo was confident it had nothing to do with the climbers who, in spring, fan out across the cliffs at Poke-O-Moonshine.
For one thing, the ledge this falcon pair had chosen for its scrape was not amid the most sought-after climbing routes. “A lot of the most popular climbing spots are open right now,” Milo said. “We’re very happy when the birds nest away from where the climbers are most interested. At Poke-O, we have 27 climbing routes closed right now. But that’s out of hundreds. It’s a big, big wall. Every single slot you could possibly go up has some kind of name and rating.”
The pesticide DDT all but wiped out peregrine falcons and bald eagles in the Northeast during the mid-20th century. The toxin caused the birds’ eggs to become so brittle that the chicks could not hatch. The chemical was banned by New York State in 1971, and by the federal government the following year.
Soon after, scientists, along with volunteer climbers, began to relocate young falcons from less affected areas, like Alaska and Canada, to artificial nest boxes affixed to bridges and cliffs in New York. The laborious process, called hacking, was a resounding success. According to the DEC, the number of breeding pairs in New York has grown steadily since the 1980s. As a result, hacking is no longer done in New York. State officials are now in the process of moving the peregrine falcon from its “endangered” list to a less restrictive category.
Unlike other birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and eagles, the peregrine falcon is relatively small, about the size of a crow. Still, it is one of the larger falcons in North America. And it is unusually handsome, with a slate-gray back and barred breast-feathers. Its most distinctive features are the black markings beneath the eyes, called malar stripes, which are believed to reduce glare during high-speed hunts. (The juveniles have more of a brown appearance, with heavy streaking on the breast.)
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the peregrine falcon is one of the most widespread birds on the globe, found on every continent except Antarctica. In the Adirondacks, it is active mostly on the eastern side of the park, where many of the cliffs are located.
About 25 miles west of Poke-O-Moonshine, another pair of breeding peregrines was having more luck last summer. A soft breeze ruffled a field of yellow and purple wildflowers some 200 feet below Lower Washbowl. Up on the cliffs, two falcons were perched on trees jutting from the rock face. They were specks, at least to my naked eye, but were easily seen through a spotting scope. The two chicks were out of view.
Teed, a slight man with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, suspected they had all—parents and chicks—just eaten. The peregrines’ favorite food consists mostly of other birds: jays, starlings, ducks, even geese.
After two hours of relative quiet, a faint wail pierced the sky. Then another. Suddenly, a peregrine chick toddled in sight along a cliff ledge, looking for an afternoon snack. Within 10 minutes, the adult male deposited food next to his young. The sibling soon appeared, and the chicks took turns feasting on the prey.
The chicks would soon fledge, meaning they would fly for the first time and start hunting for food. The process of fledging takes at least 40 days. One of the chicks appeared more mature, opening and closing its wings as if rehearsing for takeoff. Its feathers also seemed more developed than those of its sibling, whose plumage still had a downy appearance.
Peregrine eggs are usually laid within 48 hours of each other, but the gap can be as long as 72 hours. (In the Adirondacks, according to the state, successful nesting pairs produce, on average, 2.8 chicks per year.) Teed estimated that the older chick was 39 days old, with the younger chick perhaps 72 hours behind. “That older chick is very close to fledging,” he noted.
As the afternoon wore on, a pair of climbers entered the meadow opposite Chapel Pond, heading toward an adjacent cliff. They nodded as they passed, unaware of the family drama unfolding high above (every bit as exciting as baby’s first steps). As the climbers entered from Route 73, however, they would have passed a large brown-and-yellow sign warning of the route closures.
“Attention Climbers,” it reads. “The section of cliff marked in red will be temporarily closed during the period of April 1 to August 15 due to the nesting of peregrine falcons … disturbance to nesting falcons is a violation of both state and federal law and can result in substantial monetary penalties or even jail.”
In recent years, Teed pointed out, nesting falcons have alternated between the cliffs on Upper Washbowl and Lower Washbowl. Most of the time, they favor Lower Washbowl.
“Upper Washbowl is a very popular climbing cliff so it’s nice when the peregrines nest on Lower Washbowl,” he said.
On April 1 the DEC typically closes Upper and Lower Washbowls entirely. Then, sometime around late May or early June, after pinpointing the location of a nest, the agency reopens the section the breeding pair did not choose. The timing works well since May is one of the best months to climb, with temperatures starting to rise and the spring rains tapering off.
A key liaison between climbers and state wildlife officials is Van Evera, a seasoned Adirondack guide. Van Evera has worked to educate the DEC about the intricate network of cliff ascents and educate climbers about the importance of peregrines. “His knowledge of climbing routes brings an invaluable perspective as far as which routes to close and which routes won’t cause a disturbance,” Teed said. “He has also encouraged climbers to report peregrine sightings and encounters.”
Van Evera co-chairs the Peregrine Monitoring committee of the Adirondack Climbers’ Coalition, an advocacy group dedicated to responsible climbing. The coalition is an important resource for climbers, working to preserve access to cliffs, boulders and slides. It also seeks to protect cliff tops and bases, as well as plants and wildlife. For peregrines, the group regularly updates its website with information about nests and route closures.
“We have come a long way,” Van Evera said, referring to the cooperative relationship with the DEC, which has trained volunteers and climbers to ID nest sites. “Initially, the entire cliff was closed with no thought given to professional guides who depend on these areas to make a living here.”
In perhaps the surest sign of how far peregrine falcons have come in the Adirondacks, the DEC no longer monitors all 41 known eyries. The state agency now keeps tabs only on nests near climbing hotspots. “We are monitoring the rock-climbing areas—the conflict areas—and every three years, we will go back and take a deep look at everything to make sure numbers are stable,” Milo said. “Peregrine falcons have made excellent progress and are well on the way to recovery.”
- The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) has a wingspan of up to 43 inches and has been clocked at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour when stooping, or dropping on prey with its wings closed.
- The Adirondack Climbers’ Coalition posts route closures due to peregrine nesting activity at www.adirondackclimberscoalition.org.
- Learn more about peregrine falcon identification and behavior, and listen to peregrine calls, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s www.allaboutbirds.org.
Lisa W. Foderaro was a reporter for The New York Times for more than 30 years. She has also written for National Geographic and Audubon Magazine.