Falcons make bridge home

Peregrine chick rescued twice from Severn River

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Bird watchers and nature lovers are all atwitter about the newest residents of the Severn River: a pair of peregrine falcons and their accident-prone fledgling. This is first time wildlife officials can recall peregrine falcons nesting on the Severn River Bridge.
John Clauson — Severn Riverkeeper Program Allison Albert Buckalew of the Severn Riverkeeper Program gets a close-up look at Charlotte, a juvenile peregrine falcon. The bird has been rescued twice by humans after landing in the Severn River.

"That's just a great thing to look at," said Craig Koppie, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay office. "It's like another icon. Ospreys are here, eagles are, too. And now there are peregrines on the bridge."

The amazing birds are the fastest animals on the planet, known for making dramatic 200 mph dives to knock out the smaller birds they eat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Though they are no longer considered endangered, peregrines still are a rarity in the Chesapeake Bay, with just 10 nesting pairs on the Western Shore and seven or eight pairs on the Eastern Shore, Mr. Koppie said.

But the local peregrine story holds even more excitement than the buzz over the raptors' mere presence. Twice now, people have rescued the pair's daughter after she experienced false starts while learning to fly.

The first reports of the peregrines came earlier this spring. Mr. Koppie was skeptical since contractors painting the bridge hadn't reported any encounters.

But with repeated sightings reported, Mr. Koppie - an endangered species biologist and a bird expert - went to check it out on June 22.

He and representatives from the state Highway Administration and the Severn Riverkeeper Program climbed the bridge's catwalk to search for the birds. They heard and saw the adults circling.

As they examined the bridge for signs of a nest, a person in a safety boat on the water below called up that there was a falcon near the water on one of the bridge's lower footers.

Mr. Koppie pulled out his binoculars, had a look and said, "That's the baby," recalled Allison Albert Buckalew, the program director for the Severn Riverkeeper Program.

"I knew instantly that we had a fledgling," Mr. Koppie said of the small bird.

Being stuck at a low spot near the water can spell bad news for a peregrine learning to fly, Koppie said. Peregrines usually nest up high on cliffs and rely on a bit of coasting while they get their flying skills in order. From a low perch, the fledgling might not make it back up to the nest.

FALCON FACTS

Though peregrines were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999, they are still uncommon in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Habitat: Normally, they pick high cliffs. In this area, they nest on the Bay Bridge, the Key Bridge over the Patapsco River, the Legg Mason building in Baltimore, the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River along the Capital Beltway, and now on the Severn River Bridge. They mate for life and return to the same nest each spring to bear young.

Appearance: Peregrine falcons, (Falco peregrinus) are crow-sized birds with long, pointed wings. Adults have a dark gray back and crown, a pale chest and abdomen with dark bars or streaks and heavy cheek stripes on the side of the face. Females are larger than males.

Performance: Peregrines can fly 40 to 55 mph. When the dive to attack prey, the can reach speeds of 200 mph or more. They catch their prey — usually smaller birds — in mid-air.
Endangered status: The population of peregrines declined from the 1940s to 1970s, eventually falling to 12 percent of its historic levels. The banning of the pesticide DDT (which hindered reproduction) and intensive breeding and release efforts led to the “delisting” of peregrine falcons in 1999. There are between 2,000 and 3,000 nesting pairs in North America.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The peregrine search crew came down from the bridge and boarded a boat to rescue the bird. That's when the rescue got more interesting - Mr. Koppie climbed on the bridge's footing and as he approached the bird, it panicked and jumped into the water.

"Everybody on the boat was freaking out," Ms. Buckalew said.

Tim Fletcher, a project engineer with the State Highway Administration, grabbed a net and "fished that bird out of the water," Ms. Buckalew said.

Mr. Koppie examined the bird, pronounced it a female, banded it and returned it to the nest. Ms. Buckalew named the bird Charlotte.

"She stayed there that day," Mr. Koppie said. "Then she got antsy and took off."

That's when avid birdwatcher and musician Dan Haas made a second rescue just two days later.

Mr. Haas chronicled his peregrine adventures on his Web site.

Mr. Haas wrote that he was watching the peregrines on June 24 when he saw the chick fly from the bridge and land on a concrete footer yet again.

He was worried for the bird's safety, as boats and jet skis buzzed nearby.

He and a friend who has a boat went to the spot, and eventually found a "mass of wet feathers lying motionless, face down in the water," Mr. Haas wrote.

Mr. Haas jumped in, plucked the bird from the water and took it to shore, where Mr. Koppie met them.

Though it's often difficult to decide whether to interact with wildlife, Mr. Koppie said Mr. Haas made the right call.

"They can float for a good while, but the river is really active with people and that bird would have been run down," he said.

Mr. Koppie, Mr. Haas and others watched as the bird dried out and eventually hopped onto a roof and flew off behind its parents.

Now after two rescues and seeing the bird successfully soar into the sky, Mr. Koppie thinks the youngster has a good shot at survival.

"The worst is over as far as I'm concerned," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Highway Administration will keep an eye on the birds.

Fish and Wildlife officials monitor animals that recently were on the Endangered Species List, such as peregrines. Peregrines were "delisted" in 1999, Mr. Koppie said.

And SHA must make sure its work doesn't interfere with the birds.

The peregrines likely will leave the area later this year, as they are migratory birds, Mr. Koppie said.

The riverkeeper program and Mr. Koppie are working on a plan to put a nesting box on the Severn River Bridge, so that when the birds come back next spring - they usually return to the same nesting spot - they'll have a safe place to stay.

Ms. Buckalew said she's thrilled to share a positive story about wildlife on the Severn River. When the news often is about dead zones, fish kills and pollution, the rescue of Charlotte and the return of peregrines are heartwarming stories.

"We were all cheering and everyone was happy," she said.

Dan Haas has written about his peregrine adventures at http://www.danhaas.com/. The Severn Riverkeeper Program plans to post an account at http://www.severnriverkeeper.org/.

Published July 08, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised July 2007)