A cliff-hanger of survival for the peregrine falcon

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
Dr. Art mcMorris, peregrine falcon coordinator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, inspects the flight muscles of a chick last week. McMorris spends several weeks each spring banding falcon chicks across the state. - Tom Venesky | Times Leader
Rich Fritsky, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, holds a peregrine falcon chick before it is banded and returned to its nest. - Tom Venesky | Times Leader
A peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest. - Photo courtesy Ed Norman
A peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest. - - Photo courtesy Ed Norman
Cliff nests are key to survival of the peregrine falcon because they produce a higher rate of chicks that are recruited into the overall population because they present fewer hazards. - - Photo courtesy Ed Norman

Mike Scafini checked his emails while suspended from a road on the side of a cliff on Tuesday.

Nearby, Ed Norman strapped a safety cable to a tree and perched on a rock platform to snap photos of a peregrine falcon as it swooped by.

And above them both, on flat ground, Art McMorris and Rich Fritsky methodically processed two peregrine chicks that were found in the nest located in the region.

Within in an hour, the chicks were returned to the nest on the cliff, Scafini and Norman climbed to safety and the team headed out to check another location.

It’s a routine that McMorris, who is the peregrine falcon coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, will repeat daily for several weeks across the state. Each spring, McMorris travels to as many peregrine nests as he can to search for chicks, give them a health check-up and band them as a means to gauge the status of the state-listed endangered species.

It’s not an easy job, as the falcons nest in some of the most hard-to-reach places — bridges, skyscrapers, towers and cliffs. To accomplish the task, McMorris has assembled a team that makes the hard work go off without a hitch.

Scafini, who is an endangered mammals specialist with the PGC, handles the rappelling to reach nests and, if there are chicks, carefully places them in a bag and passes them up to McMorris. Using a telephoto lens, Norman is able to zoom in on the adult falcons to determine if they are banded and, if they are, can photograph the numbers for identification.

And depending where he is in the state, McMorris enlists the help of a Game Commission biologist to assist with processing the chicks. On this day that job went to Fritsky, a wildlife diversity biologist with the agency.

Even with the help, McMorris keeps a hectic schedule as the chicks need to be banded when they are 17 to 25 days old.

“My wife keeps a picture of me at home so she won’t forget what I look like,” McMorris joked. “The last two weeks have been absolutely crazy.”

And productive.

Last year there were 46 peregrine nest sites in the state. So far, in 2018 that number increased to 50, according to McMorris, including 12 nests on cliffs — three of which are new.

The cliff nests, McMorris said, are key to survival of the peregrine falcon because they produce a higher rate of chicks that are recruited into the overall population.

The reason?

There are fewer hazards with a cliff nest compared to man-made locations in urban areas.

While two-thirds of falcon chicks perish in their first year due to hazards such as storms, predators or simply not being able to hunt well, that rate is higher in urban areas.

“If you have a nest in a city on a bridge above a river and that chick fledges from the nest but isn’t very strong yet, it will fall into the river and drown on its first flight,” McMorris said. “We lose a lot of them that way.”

There are additional threats that are exclusive to an urban setting. While food is abundant in the form of pigeons, falcons also get hit by cars and fly into windows in the city.

“Having three new cliff nets this year is very important. Most of the nests overall are found in the southeast around Philadelphia where there are plenty of tall buildings,” McMorris said. “But the cliff nests are concentrated in the northeast region along major river systems.”

Finding the nests is only half the battle as knowing what’s in them is imperative. A female peregrine begins to lay eggs in March and generally produces up to four. The chicks hatch in May after a 34-day incubation period, and McMorris tries to get to them before they are older than 25 days. At that point, he said, the chicks are more mobile and there is a greater risk they could roll out of the nest when approached.

On Tuesday, Scafini found two chicks in the nest and passed them up in a mesh bag. McMorris and Fritsky took over, weighing each chick and taking a throat culture to test for the presence of trichomoniasis, a disease transmitted to raptors that prey on pigeons and doves. McMorris also feels the keel bone on the breast of each chick to determine development of the flight muscles. A blood sample is also taken for DNA research, and McMorris inspects the underside of the wings for the presence of bugs.

The two chicks on Tuesday — a male and a female — were disease-free, but both were infested with bugs. McMorris said the infestation is common on falcon chicks and usually isn’t life-threatening, but he still treats each bird with an insecticide powder to wipe out the bugs.

After bands are placed on each leg, the chicks are handed back to Scafini and put back in their nest.

McMorris said he’s nearing the end of this year’s falcon banding program and even though things are busy he doesn’t mind.

After all, the busier McMorris is the better the peregrine population is doing in the state.

“I started this in 2004 and we had 11 nests in the state,” he said. “Things are really looking good this year.”

Dr. Art mcMorris, peregrine falcon coordinator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, inspects the flight muscles of a chick last week. McMorris spends several weeks each spring banding falcon chicks across the state.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_falcon1.jpgDr. Art mcMorris, peregrine falcon coordinator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, inspects the flight muscles of a chick last week. McMorris spends several weeks each spring banding falcon chicks across the state. Tom Venesky | Times Leader

Rich Fritsky, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, holds a peregrine falcon chick before it is banded and returned to its nest.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_falcon2.jpgRich Fritsky, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, holds a peregrine falcon chick before it is banded and returned to its nest. Tom Venesky | Times Leader

A peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1__82A0503.jpgA peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest. Photo courtesy Ed Norman

A peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1__82A0980.jpgA peregrine falcon returns to its cliff nest. Photo courtesy Ed Norman

Cliff nests are key to survival of the peregrine falcon because they produce a higher rate of chicks that are recruited into the overall population because they present fewer hazards.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_falcon4.jpgCliff nests are key to survival of the peregrine falcon because they produce a higher rate of chicks that are recruited into the overall population because they present fewer hazards. Photo courtesy Ed Norman
Peregrine falcon population sustained by nests on cliffs

By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Art McMorris believes its possible there are more peregrine falcon nests across the state that have yet to be identified. He relies on volunteer sightings to find new locations, and this year three new cliff nests were reported and confirmed. If you see peregrine falcons, report the sighting by calling the nearest Pennsylvania Game Commission region office. The number for the northeast region office is 570-675-1143.

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky