By Rick Steelhammer
Six radio transmitter-packing peregrine falcons released in the New River Gorge in July have traveled nearly 53,000 miles, and are roosting in such far-flung locales as a 17-story building in Greensboro, N.C., and offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
The falcons were part of a group of 24 young peregrines released in the gorge as part of an ongoing reintroduction effort for the species, which is rarely seen in the Eastern United States.
The birds had been taken from nests on busy coastal area bridges in Virginia and New Jersey, where their chances for survival were considered virtually zero, to a cliff-top release site in the National Park Service-managed New River Gorge National River. There, they dined on human-supplied quail as they adapted to their new environment and learned to fly and hunt on their own.
All 24 of the falcons survived their early weeks of flight training in the gorge, and as anticipated, left Southern West Virginia to roam the East.
“All the birds that were equipped with transmitters kept them, until about two weeks ago, when one of them disappeared near Savannah, Ga.,” said Matt Varner, wildlife biologist for the National Park Service. “We don’t know if he lost his radio pack, which sometimes happens, or died.”
Signals from the transmitters are periodically relayed to a satellite, then bounced back to a receiving station and recorded for tracking and analysis purposes.
The farthest traveling peregrine was Falcon 41300, the lone female equipped with a transmitter, who traveled northward to Canada and northern Michigan before heading south to the Gulf Coast, covering 11,060 miles since July. These days, she is spending her time near Mobile, Ala.
Logging the fewest flight miles (6,373) was Falcon 8175, who lingered in the Pittsburgh area before finally heading south, crossing a stretch of the Atlantic between Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., before arriving in his current hunting grounds in the Tallahassee, Fla., area.
Birding enthusiasts have spotted at least two of the New River Gorge falcons, according to Varner.
Falcon 54495, born on the Betsy Ross Bridge near Pennsauken, N.J., was seen at a raptor banding site in Virginia, a short distance from West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where it made repeated passes at a pigeon decoy used to lure birds of prey into a complex of mist nets. The falcon wasn’t captured, but members of the banding crew took note of its telemetry pack. For the past week, that falcon has been spending his time in or around Harpers Ferry, and Varner is hopeful the Jefferson County town’s cliffs will provide nesting habitat for the falcon and a mate when spring arrives.
Falcon 9908, hatched on the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge near Hopewell, Va., spent much of his time since July in Southern West Virginia, but flew as far north as New York’s Adirondack Mountains before turning south. In November, he arrived in North Carolina, where he was spotted in a Christmas bird count on the clock tower of the Lincoln Financial Building in downtown Greensboro.
“He wasn’t seen since Christmas, but when our bird club went on an outing to the landfill last weekend, we saw a smaller bird zipping through a group of turkey vultures,” said nature photographer and Piedmont Bird Club member Melissa Whitmire of Greensboro.
Club members identified the smaller bird as a peregrine falcon, and saw that it was carrying a transmitter antenna, a good indicator that he was Falcon 9908.
A photo and account of the falcon’s presence in downtown Greensboro appeared in the Dec. 30 edition of the Greensboro News-Record.
Falcon 54496, a product of New Jersey’s Sea Isle Bridge, has lately been spending his time along the Gulf Coast of Texas southwest of Houston, after traveling to Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and Alabama.
The three falcons now hunting along the Gulf of Mexico have been tracked more than 100 miles offshore, where “we think they may be roosting at night on oil rigs or ships,” Varner said.
The fact that the young peregrines released in the New River Gorge during 2007 have survived so long and ranged so far bodes well for their survival prospects.
“Sixty percent of peregrines die in their first year, so these falcons have really battled the odds,” Varner said. “Their initial flights are the riskiest, but now that they’re on their winter hunting grounds, they should be good for a while.”
Plans call for continuing the reintroduction effort for at least another two years.
“We hope to get some of these birds back to the gorge,” Varner said. “If we find nesting falcons here later this year, we may not release any new juveniles to avoid conflict between the young birds and the nesting falcons.”
Peregrine falcons were recently removed from the federal endangered species list, but remain rare in the Eastern United States. Helicopter surveys by wildlife biologists have identified the New River Gorge area as having perhaps the best habitat in the region to support a small peregrine population.