Peregrine Watch Update Archive - 2010

August 18, 2010. The sky dims to a dusky glow as I return from my run down Schooner Head Trail and make my way back to the Precipice parking lot. The last hikers of the day are working their way to their cars and a heavy silence creeps its way over the cliff face like fog. With all of the cars and buses and talking during the Peregrine Watch, there were very few times when I experienced this depth of calm and quiet at the Precipice. One of these moments especially stands out in my mind right now. It was on this date, three months ago, when I first sat with Angi (the raptor ranger) on the granite block benches that corner the Precipice parking lot. It was a mid-May day and, as we ate our lunch, she told me the stories of the peregrines. We had a hunch that a new, quirky-behaved pair had moved into the mansion of the Precipice but there was no forecasting what this summer would actually have in store for us.

When I sat with Angi on that spring day I understood the history: the silent DDT catastrophe, the multi-million dollar reintroduction program, their presence in the park. But it is not until being perched here three months later that I can truly understand why Angi and others spend so much time watching these birds. It is more than just being a “bird nerd;” it is about taking the time to learn about and care for the creatures that share the rivers and fields and forests—the pigments and molecules and waves of the earth. Standing each morning, immersed in the open air, all senses alert, ready for the chop of every wing, and diligently exercising patience. Although we are watching for the peregrines we are attuned to the songs of other birds, we are meeting countless new people, and the numbness of routine is vanished. We exercise a willingness for surprise and celebrate the unknown. The peregrine falcons remind us of the ever-engrained mystery that nature sustains.

To be able to watch the four rascal chicks at Beech Cliffs and the one little lady chick at the Precipice was a great opportunity but now as they embark on a journey south, we turn our sense of wonder over to another mystery that nature presents: migration. Now that the peregrine falcon young have “flown the coop,” we have shifted our monitoring from the Precipice to Cadillac Mountain where we will host the Hawk Watch from 9am-2pm everyday (weather permitting) in order to learn more about the raptors and their annual voyage south in the fall. Bring your curiosity, a warm jacket, and binoculars and join us atop the mountain! Also, this will be the 2010’s last issue of “View From the Aerie” so be on the look out for “Riding the Winds” under Acadia National Park’s Hawk Watch link.

-Renee Duncan

August 15, 2010. We feel the call from somewhere deep within us: Embark. Set Sail. Explore. Steal away. Drive. Fly. Escape. Venture forth. Just go. It is the call of distant spaces, the lure of the road, the desire to know what lies over the next hill and beyond the immense sea. Wanderlust. It is the call that carried Samuel de Champlain to Mount Desert Island and now, hundreds of years later, it is the same call that has beckoned me and millions of visitors to Acadia National Park. Now that the juvenile peregrine falcon at the Precipice has been flying for nearly five weeks, the urge to set sail on the winds has taken ahold of her as well.

The young wanderer has gradually become more and more independent of the cliff face and spends very little time on the worn and creased ledges where she grew up. We have only seen her once in the past week during our morning monitoring, briefly stopping in, grabbing a quick lunch from her parents, and then heading back out into the cerulean shawl of sky. Many will be happy to know that on Wednesday, August 11th, the Precipice Trail opened on account of her increased independence! The comings and goings of peregrines are now replaced by a steady stream of hikers testing their courage on the iron-rung ladders of the unforgiving but exhilarating trail.

It is hard to say where the call of the winds will guide our Precipice miss but in due time she will leave the Precipice completely and scope out some territory of her own. It has been a delight to watch this little lady develop since she emerged from somewhere in the middle tree band five weeks ago; however, our last day of watching the peregrines will be on Sunday, August 15th. We are now preparing for Hawk Watch which will begin on Sunday, August 22nd. I can’t wait to be able to observe the passing of raptors on Cadillac Mountain as they too listen to the call that beckons and urges them to ride the winds.

-Renee Duncan

August 1, 2010. The word “raptor” is derived from the latin verb, rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. To this day, the most impressionable experience I have had with a raptor was when I was eleven and it most certainly illustrates “rapere.” In the spring, I came home from school one dreary afternoon to find that the vacant wooded-wetland next to our house had been bulldozed into a huge scraggy pile of arboreal corpses. No more than a few weeks after the onslaught, a pair of groundhogs made the pile their home and by summer, four brown balls of baby would routinely scamper out of the woody debris and onto our lawn.

I remember the Saturday morning clearly. As I grudgingly vacuumed the wooden floors of my parents’ bedroom, I gazed up to the backyard to see a red-tailed hawk picking at a dark clump in the garden. My heart sank and I already knew what went down but I still dropped the vacuum wand and sprinted outside. A wild resentment for the hawk spread through me as I got closer to the garden and, sure enough, what was once a little groundhog chasing its brothers and sisters in the grass and eating feasts out of mom’s flower beds was now a smear of entrails spread across bloodied soil. It is times like this that the hard truths of nature can be difficult to palate.

When I accepted my role as Acadia’s “Raptor Intern,” along with some of the most heightened excitement I have ever held in my body, I also knew that I would encounter some more of those “hard truth” moments. Here I am hoping to inspire people to care for birds that are normally revered for their power, their hunting (seemingly) without remorse; they are the symbols of war mongers and fierce combatants, and I can barely keep from withering when someone kills a spider. I knew I would really have to delve into the lives of these birds in order to understand and fully appreciate their intensity.

The Precipice peregrines have allowed me to do just that! Slowly, as I’ve watched this family grow from two to three and the third grow from a graceless-fledging girl to an elegantly-soaring young lady, my understanding has been cultivated into a deep admiration for the peregrines and raptors in general. The Precipice miss is now learning to hunt, dipping and twirling after dragonflies, attempting dives for the song birds over the meadow, and I actually find myself cheering her on! To be successful, she must have patience and an awareness of the risks involved when “borrowing” from the system. The peregrines are true instinctual hunters and as such, they play an integral role in the health of Acadia’s ecosystem.

Just as their raptor categorization suggests, the peregrines not only take their prey by force, but they will also seize the attention of any spectators. If you take the Park Loop Road to the Precipice and join us any day from 9am-noon, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

–Renee Duncan

July 25, 2010.

“Let us spend one day [living] as deliberately as nature…” -Henry David Thoreau

Throughout the week, as the idle buds of morning became astir with the sideways dances of everyday, I was reminded of the aforementioned dare Thoreau posed in his second chapter of Walden. The peregrine watch allots at least 12 hours of my week to observing the birds’ activities—errands, siestas, lunches, airshows—and with the young one learning her way of life, a majority of those hours are entertained by flight practices, recitals of nagging to let the world know she’s hungry, and plenty of wholesome lounging. However, this is not to be misconstrued as indeliberate living. Instead the peregrines are a beaming testimony to Thoreau’s charge. They lead simple lives directed only by necessity and weather. So how enlightening it is to be reminded morning after morning of what some of these necessities are.

Nourishment of food. This may be the main vein of thought on the young peregrine’s mind. She is incessantly standing by for mom or dad’s next return, anxious to see what, if any, prey has been brought back in their taloned clutches. This past week we watched her gorge down a huge gull feast one day followed by a juicy green heron lunch the next.

Inborn sense of play/Safety of home. More often than not, we feel the urge to find fun. We crave laughter and leisure and lunge at the opportunity to play. The same goes for our Precipice miss. The instigation of a passing dove, turkey vulture, or even a bald eagle might send her diving off a ledge to rally them out of her territory. On Friday, we watched with bated breath as she dipped and swirled around the flashing talons of a barrel- rolling juvenile bald eagle that had been casually soaring to the North. While these air raids may keep her entertained, they serve a crucial role of preparing the immature peregrine to defend her home as well.

Rejuvenating rest. The vast majority of the time we spend at the Precipice, the birds are perched. They sit conserving their energy and waiting. Waiting to be hungry again, waiting for tomorrow’s version of the sky, waiting for their little one to grow stronger, wiser and more capable. They are an ode to patience.

For a wonderful reminder of how to live as deliberately as nature, join us everyday from 9am-noon at the Precipice!

-Renee Duncan

July 18, 2010. This week at the Precipice, I noticed that we were readjusting our viewing scopes much more frequently in order to keep up with the lively new addition that is launching and landing from the ledges above us. The peregrine "teenager" that has taken wing on the fog-mopped skies at the Precipice is exploring the cliff face, watching everything intently, and learning. We have watched the young bird fly with its parents and by comparing its size we can determine that the juvenile is a female! We see her at the top of the ridge, where she often perches, and her inborn curiosity takes hold as her head tips toward anything that stirs or makes a sound. Without sibling peregrines to play and discover with, she will be more reliant on her own instinct, aided by both parents, to learn how to defend her home and hunt efficiently.

On Friday morning as we were beginning to take down our scopes, we lifted our eyes to see the adult female chasing off some gulls that were encroaching on the territory. Just behind her was the juvenile, wings chopping through the air fervently, trying to tag along to observe her mother's technique. No more than ten minutes later, we were delighted to see the youngster practicing what she had learned, chasing off a gull on her own! While she has made a tremendous amount of progress in the week and a half that we been watching her, the peregrine juvenile is still dependent on her parents to hunt and supply the eating habits that are typical of any developing teenager. The Precipice miss will hang around for three to four more weeks so be sure to take advantage of this heartening opportunity and join us in observing her journey of growth and discovery! We’ll be at the Precipice everyday from 9-noon (weather permitting)!

Meanwhile, on the west side of the island, the Beech Cliffs peregrine youngsters are getting ready to bid their farewells. They have been flying now for a hearty four or five weeks and are just about ready to venture out into the world independently. Peregrine means “wanderer” and these juveniles will wander, in general, northward in the summer and southward in the winter. Like people, they can be city slickers or country birds, but most likely they will stick to what they know and return to the New England area for their nesting. Peregrine falcons are such territorial birds, the peregrine parents would not allow their young to come back and nest on their natal cliffs. Instead the boisterous rascals will need to find and stake out their own territory, wherever they can, and in two to three years, they will be able to care for a nest of their own. We expect the Beech Cliffs juveniles to stick around for another week or two so head on down to Echo Lake beach to see these siblings in action!

-Renee Duncan

July 8, 2010. For a couple of months now, we have spent our mornings at a meager perch in the Precipice parking lot, gazing up at the grand cliffs on the east side of Champlain Mountain, watching. We’ve watched the starts of spring transform into glorious sunlit summer days and the tiny bits of plant life on the cliff face grow into luxurious leafy foliage.

We’ve watched a breeding pair of peregrine falcons go about their daily lives, claiming the precipice as their summer home. On some days we’ve watched three hours worth of fog-laden air masses blanket the ledges, while on other days the cliff face becomes a sun-drenched backdrop for watching the peregrine falcons soarrr.We’ve watched as turkey vultures barely escape the peregrine’s wrath, bald eagles are escorted out of the vicinity, and flocks of herring gulls are sent in a tizzy away from their blueberry feasts at the top of Champlain.

For a good three weeks, we watched a mother attending to a certain mossy ledge on the upper cliff face, let our chins fall when she abandoned it completely, and cringed when turkey vultures raided the scrape. And we’ve stood awash in bewilderment a couple of mornings after an intruding male peregrine falcon ventured about the Precipice with little reaction from the local residents.

All the while we’ve been enthralled, and intrigued. But when it came down to it, the most reliable hint as to what was actually happening on the Precipice wasn’t from what we were watching, but instead, what we were hearing. The past couple of weeks when the peregrine adults took flight, we encouraged the crowd to hold back their oo’s and ah’s. Once hushed, the wowing chorus was replaced by another voice sailing brightly from somewhere on the cliff face. The little voice has grown from a faint call to a boisterous demand, and finally, today, we were overjoyed to see the owner of that voice.

Today we watched a chick! Granted, it is more of a teenager now since it has been hanging under our radar for the past forty days or so. But today we watched it sit proudly on a rock toward the north side of the mountain and we watched it preen out the fluffy downy feathers from beneath its new mottled flight jacket feathers. We watched it flap its wings awkwardly as it considered a new perch, levitate for a brief moment, only to clumsily fall behind the rock it was sitting on. It’s absolutely adorable and this is only the beginning of the exciting priviledge it will be to watch the fledgling explore curiosities, learn to hunt, and interact with mom and dad. The youngster will stick around for about six more weeks, so come to the Precipice any day (weather permitting) from 9am-noon, and set aside some space in your itinerary to join us in watching!

-Renee Duncan

June 27, 2010.

  • Master the art of flight
  • Zip after dragonflies flying over Echo Lake
  • Practice sinking talons into anything flying by
  • Land on a tree branch clinging to Beech Cliff
  • Preen feathers back into place after overestimating the landing zone
  • Call repeatedly until mom or dad takes pity and drops off a cedar waxwing for a snack
  • Join siblings to mob any passing turkey vultures
  • Compete with siblings to gobble up every morsel of the mallard mom hunted for lunch
  • Rest on a shaded ledge and watch beachgoers

If peregrine falcons were to make a To-Do list, the above list might belong to one of the recently fledged chicks at Beech Cliffs. Over the past few weeks, four little balls of down have grown into full-feathered adult-sized birds (distinguished from their parents by a cream-colored band at the tip of their tails and brown and cream mottled bodies). At this point, they are insatiable bellies with wings, still dependent on their parents to bring them food and keep them safe from the dangers of intruders, bad weather, and inexperience. Each day, the fledglings test the boundaries of their new found freedom and soar the skies with more confidence. These youngsters are super playful and can be observed chasing and tagging one another frequently. Not only are they exercising their inborn curiosity, but also tapping into their natural instinct to hunt and protect their nesting territory. Sympathy goes out to any bird flying through the area, from goldfinch to heron to osprey, that becomes subjected to the little rascals’ aerial practice. Often times, all of the siblings will gang up, fly above the victim, and take their turn at stooping (diving) at the unlucky passerby. Take a front row seat on Echo Lake Beach for this daily avian airshow.

Meanwhile, at the Precipice, we are still keeping an eye (with the help of the scopes) on the dynamics of our quirky pair. Some mornings they are bustling from perch to branch to ledge to another perch, and other mornings they sit in the same place for hours at a time. So far, all signs have pointed to a failed nesting attempt at the Precipice, however, the female peregrine continues to aggressively defend the area. Could there be a late clutch of chicks hidden somewhere on the cliffside? We’re still not sure, but extra eyes and ears are always appreciated, so please join us everyday from 9am to 12pm to watch the Precipice pair and get the scoop on their ever-changing status.

-Renee Duncan

June 20, 2010. During my last semester at MSU, I did a series of projects on the topic of “How To Be An Explorer of the World.” I encouraged my audiences to take the plunge, to march out of their front doors with senses ablaze, and to engage with the raucousness of life around us. As of late, my time spent on Mount Desert Island has allowed me to practice what I’ve preached. Whether it be braving the night through the routine bangs and creaks of a Rockfeller Gatehouse built in 1932, or helping to raise the sails of a four-masted schooner, or spinning away an evening at a local contradance, or being able to gaze up at a deep night sky and see sparkling estuaries of stars spill out among the universe while sifting the cool sands of Sand Beach through my toes and the lulling sounds of the Atlantic through my ears- I can’t help but feel that my old self has been hollowed out by new and extraordinary experiences.

And just when I didn’t think it possible for events to become any more exciting, they did. On Tuesday I was invited to join Acadia’s team of wildlife biologists to climb the Precipice in order to test just how aggressive the peregrines are now in lieu of our recent speculations of failed nesting attempts. Despite a mix of very obvious dangers (sharp talons, narrow cliff ledges, the world’s fastest creature in distress…), I was thrilled to tag along. We climbed the Orange & Black Path to the top of Champlain Mountain and before I knew it, my back was pressed against the dome rock at the top of the cliff, my hands tightly gripping the iron bar in the rock behind me, and an absolutely incredible view--the downslope of the Precipice, the specks of people peering up at us from the parking lot, the meadow, the marsh, then the sea--was sprawled before me.

We had picked our way about halfway down the upper cliff face when we noticed the female peregrine in sight and she was not happy with us. She steadily circled above us, called in protest, picked up speed, increased volume, and then the stooping began. With one hand I clutched binoculars to my face as I tried to trace the livid ladybird in circles across the sky while avoiding the blinding sun, the other hand clasped an iron wrung behind me with an iron grip, and adrenaline surged. We stayed just long enough to be able to snap some photos and then high-tailed it down the upper cliff and into the tree band to take refuge from the aggressive peregrine.

We managed to make it down the whole Precipice Trail, unscathed, but not without a new respect for the power, speed, and aggression of peregrine falcons. From this experiment, we learned that it is too soon to open the Precipice Trail since the birds are still very territorial, and we now know that the current female has a gray band on her left leg and a green over black band on her right leg.

Although the Precipice trail is not open yet for use, I encourage everyone to delve into the rest of the park and explore the wondrous networks of life that are attached to the land and sea. The Peregrine Watch at the Precipice everyday from 9am-12pm is a great way to get started! We look forward to seeing you there! To experience even more peregrine pandemonium, visit Echo Lake to see and hear the peregrine chicks that will brave their pioneer plunge out of the scrape any day now.

-Renee Duncan

June 13, 2010. Events unfolding at the precipice this week have been hard to watch. Starting Sunday we noticed that the peregrines were not spending much time at the scrape site and we had a hunch that something wasn’t right. By Thursday, suspicion had taken grip in our bones and we knew that something had gone terribly wrong. We heard the cries of peregrines when we arrived that morning, however, a few hours later when turkey vultures had followed their noses over to the Precipice, not a single falcon feather stirred. The pair of turkey vultures circled closer and closer to the scrape site and cringes clenched deeper onto the faces of those of us standing by. Where are the concerned parents-to-be!? Why aren’t these turkey vultures getting chased away? One could almost hear the thud of gnarled vulture feet hit rock, squashing the bit of hope for chicks we still held, as one of the scavengers landed on a ledge directly to the left of the scrape site. Still no peregrines in sight.

After witnessing this, we can only assume that the nesting attempts of the peregrine falcons at the Precipice have failed this year, the pair has abandoned their scrape site, and the hungry turkey vultures smelled the loss. We suspect that if is a young pair and perhaps their first attempt at nesting, then it is not surprising that they weren’t able to get everything perfect the first time around. We have monitered steady nesting behavior since the end of May, our hopes building, waiting for little white puffs to peer off of the mossy ledge we have watched so ademantly through hours of sun and fog and clouds and rain. But this week we are awash with dissapointment and sorrow. We are empathetic to the peregrines’ vulnerability—the trials presented by nature’s cycles and intersecting circles, rotations and revolutions, the ebbs and flows with which we all must be in tune. Chicks or not, it is a wonderful priveledge to spot the peregrine falcon pair that is still claiming the Precipice as their own. The Precipice area continues to be closed as long as the peregrines defend their cliff. We will continue to monitor and observe them from 9a.m. to 12p.m. everyday and you’re invited to join us! Please stop by!

Also, on the other side of the island at Beech Cliffs, bordering the west side of Echo Lake, a much more triumphant story unfurls. The proud peregrine parents residing there have raised four (not three but four!) healthy chicks that are getting ready to fledge any day now! They can be heard from the beach, squawking from time to time, pleading for mom or dad to bring back another tasty bird. Although the nest cannot be seen from Acadia National Park, we encourage visitors to go and enjoy the excitement of these fledging chicks at Beech Cliffs, but please be aware of trail closings and areas marked prohibited for the peregrines’ and your protection.

-Renee Duncan

June 6, 2010. We stood in the precipice parking lot as a small group differing in age and interests but alike in our heightened anticipation. There were no peregrines in view so focus shifted to the scrape (nest) site and I began to recite a description of the location that I have artfully mastered. “Okay, follow the very tip top ridge line, you’ll see the balancing rock that looks like it’s about to fall off the edge. Continue past this to the right and you’ll see a dome-shaped rock where the ridge line dips. Do you see it? Great. Now move your eyes in a straight line down from the dome and a bit to the right you’ll see a dark shmear with a pink scar on the cliff face. Got it? Okay, well at the base of that pink/corally-colored scar, you’ll see a soft little spray of vegetation and just to the left of that is a ledge with some moss. That’s where she is! And you’re not going to see the typical bundle of sticks and twigs donuted into a cushion, she literally scrapes around a bit in the gravel on the cliff ledge and calls it home!” With many visitors at the Precipice, so eager to see this rare and grandeur bird, the monologue above starts to reel out of my mouth and expressions of wonder are lit on more and more faces with each repetition.

Just as a new family strolls up and the shpeal is on the tip of my toungue, action unfolds. Four V-shaped silouettes with scraggly black wings parade in from the south. They are turkey vultures. The female peregrine takes notice and sits alert at the edge of the scrape. As the turkey vultures soar closer, it is clear that they have pushed the limit and the aggitated peregrine leaps from her perch! Her sickle-shaped wings beat in rhythmic cadance. Her steady accelarando of flight smoothes into a fierce dive boasting ardent speed and agility! She strikes a turkey vulture, weaving around it as her momentum keeps her moving! Feathers firework from the ragged raptor’s rump! An array of emotions sweep through the group whether it be shock, horror, facination or astonishment. The peregrine retreats back to the cliff and our heightened emotions simmer into reverence. We breathe out, unclench our hearts, and feel them fill with awe after witnessing such speed, power, and surprising grace. How did she stir this turbulence and excitement with such regality?

Our peregrine heroine is not simply showing off but instead, tapping into her strengths in order to defend her nest and the space she and her mate have chosen as home. She is an exuberant example of devotion and the challenges we will endure to protect the things we love. Peregrines are very territorial, warding off fellow falcons, other birds of prey and foreign intruders (humans), hence the reason the Precipice trail is closed. Although chicks have not been spotted at the Precipice yet, this typical nesting behavior encourages us that perhaps they are still on the way. Time will tell, and until then, keen observation and monitoring, from rangers, volunteers, and visitors are needed. For a chance to watch these busy parents in action, join us from 9am-12pm everyday (weather permitting) at the precipice!

—Renee Duncan

May 30, 2010. Greetings and welcome to the 2010 edition of View from the Aerie! My name is Renee Duncan, this year’s raptor intern, and a few weeks ago I graduated with a degree in Park, Recreation and Tourism Resources from Michigan State University with a specialization in Community Engagement and Education. From moving from Michigan to Maine, to meeting all of the fine people I will be working with, to acclimating to the resources of Acadia, these post-graduation weeks have been packed with excitement!

It turns out that I am not the only one on the move. As spring presses on into warmer days, Acadia National Park begins to welcome more and more visiting friends from the greater New England area, the United States and other places all around the world. This year, the community, from locals to visitors, celebrates the 20th year of observing a pair of peregrine falcons nesting at the Precipice on the east side of Champlain Mountain. Over the next few weeks, I’m excited to report the activity of these birds as rangers, volunteers, and visitors alike will watch a new pair embark on the wonderous yet elemental journey of nesting.

When I first arrived, there was a bit of mystery surrounding the pair of peregrines at the Precipice. But after three months of monitoring by dedicated volunteers and rangers, it appears that the pair nesting at the Precipice now is different from the pair that has occupied the site for the past five years, based on distinctly different behavior and leg banding. Further monitoring in the past two weeks indicate that our avian aquaintances are sitting on eggs. So just as I find myself needing to spend some time settling in, learning the ropes and getting aquainted with the area, the peregrines too have taken some time to house-warm. Meanwhile, another pair of peregrines have settled on Beech Cliffs, on Beech Mountain, and are already raising a clutch of three chicks. The parents are sure to be busy hunting for food, protecting the cliffs from fellow raptors, and preparing for the eyases to fledge (take flight).

Come hang out with us at the Precipice Trailhead parking area from 9:00am to 12:00pm daily (weather permitting) to watch and learn more about these majestic birds in action and see what has us hooked! Keep in mind that the Precipice Trail and some clearly marked areas in and around Beech Cliff are closed to protect the nesting birds from disturbance as well as protect visitors from aggressive attacks from the protective parents. It’s going to be a great season!

—Renee Duncan

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