Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Peregrine Falcons of the Mount Tom Range

Massachusetts Peregrine Falcons

Mt Tom in western Massachusetts was one of fourteen historical peregrine falcon cliff-nesting sites in Massachusetts. According to a Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife document, in 1948 the state ornithologist, Archie Hagar, discovered that the eggshells in the nest of peregrines at Quabbin Reservoir were unexplainably broken. It was later discovered that the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which accumulated in the food chain and became concentrated in peregrines (and others), was the cause of the weak eggshells.
Mt Tom Range, above the Connecticut River
Mt Tom Range, above the Connecticut River

As a result of the devastating effect DDT had on eggshells, peregrine reproduction completely collapsed. 1955 saw the last of nesting peregrines in Massachusetts (Great Barrington), and by 1966, not one nesting pair was found in the eastern US.

After the ban of DDT in 1972, attention was given to restoring the falcons. Early efforts in the 70's failed in Massachusetts. In the 80's, release of captive-bred chicks in Boston resulted in the first post-DDT nesting (1987). Today, there are approximately 30 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the state, many of them in western Mass.

And one of those pairs nests on the Mt Tom range. A male who has nested on Mt Tom before, and a new female from NY state successfully raised two female chicks this year. It was quite a treat to watch these birds develop, get fed by their parents, and learn how to fly.

Mt Tom Peregrine Falcon Video

Two photographers, Ray Asselin and Rich D'Amato, spent many long days watching and filming the growth of these raptors over a period of months. Linda Henderson, who has spent many hours over the years photographing nature on Mt Tom, unfortunately broke her wrist this spring and was unable to continue her photography; but she contributed some welcomed video from early in the nesting. Rich and Linda have extensive photos from the 2014 season as well.

As well as the "dirt time" invested in the photography, there were technical challenges to it too. Distances from vantage points to the birds were substantial, making it necessary to use telephoto lenses for virtually all shots. And there were few vantage points that put us within reasonable reach of the birds. Most shots were taken at ranges of 75 to 200 yards, a long reach for targets as small as a peregrine.

Mt Tom's Young Peregrine Falcons of 2015
Mt Tom's Young Peregrine Falcons of 2015

But we're not griping- it was thoroughly enjoyable time spent. On most days, there were long periods (hours) when nothing happened. Once the chicks were large enough to be out of the nest, there would suddenly be a quick flurry of activity when a parent flew in with food for them; they would scream and carry on the moment they spotted the parent flying in (and long before we could see them coming). We learned to take that cue and get cameras ready to go. As quickly as the parents darted in, they'd drop the food item (always a bird they had killed) and dash away. It all happened so quickly that, more often than not, we'd fail to get much of it recorded (I was going to say "on film", but...).

In fact, we never did manage to get video of the parents passing food to the young birds in mid-air, although Rich did get a 4-shot burst of stills of one exchange. The chicks would consume the food and (once they could fly), would do some aerobatics for a few minutes. Then they'd settle down to rest, often for long stretches. Sometimes that would yield interesting interaction between the two birds, but mostly they were very quiet and still. Once they could fly, they established a favorite perch on a dead limb, where they'd sort of snuggle up to each other to have a snooze, or just watch time pass. Frustratingly for us, there was a hickory branch hanging down in front of them, blocking much of our view of them. We'd have to wait for a breeze to blow the branch out of the way to get a shot. And that didn't happen often enough on stiflingly hot, still, humid days!

One of the two young falcons performed some interesting feats; she would flap and soar around the cliff face, then swoop down over the tops of trees growing on the top of the cliff wall, and some on the slope of it. On several occasions, I saw her snag something out of the topmost twigs of the hardwoods. At first I thought she might be grabbing a small bird- learning to be a predator. But I didn't really see any evidence that it was a bird. It may have been just a bit of green foliage; she was too far away to see it well enough to identify it. But she held it in her talons and, mid-flight, would put her head down and pick at it. Never did figure out what it was.

The two sisters developed their aerobatic skills together, chasing each other around, twisting, diving, climbing, soaring in a synchronous aerial dance. How I'd love to have that experience!

The most endearing scene for me though was when, on her first day of flight, one of the peregrines discovered a waterfall at the top of the cliff wall, where she had landed. She hopped her way several yards over to it, and proceeded to rather awkwardly climb into the splashing falls, taking the first shower of her young life. It appeared she really wanted a bath, but there was no pool deep enough for that luxury, so a shower had to suffice. But did she relish it!

The story has been recorded on video for everyone to see (below), and published on our companion Youtube channel, New England Forests.

You can see the complete story of this year's nesting here:


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