The east side of Champlain Mountain doesn’t seem like a forgiving place to learn to fly. Sparse vegetation dots the face of the cliff, which drops off starkly for eight hundred feet. The iron rungs of the Precipice Trail wind up the face, jutting out from the bare granite. The steepness of the trail makes it a challenging ascent even for seasoned hikers.
Though the east face looks rugged and inhospitable, the peregrine falcons who call Champlain home during their breeding season have done extraordinarily well here. Their nest (which is really just a scrape in the gravel) is situated high up on the cliff, on a ledge beneath a rocky overhang. The east-facing cliff provides them with warm air to coast on, and they have ample shelter from the weather and a good vantage point for spotting prey. Peregrines have successfully raised young for all but two of the years since they returned to nest at the Precipice in 1991. The Peregrine Falcon Watch program, where visitors can view the nesting falcons and learn about them from park staff, began the same year. As the Raptor Intern for 2019, I am fortunate enough to have watched this year’s batch of youngsters grow up.
For the falcons, summer is a time of rapid growth and change. I remember the leap of excitement I felt in late May, when we first saw one of the adult falcons fly into the nest with a songbird in its talons. The adult landed on the nest, facing away from us, and we could see its fanned-out tail bob up and down. This confirmed that chicks had hatched: the adult will regurgitate food for very young chicks, hence the bobbing tail.
Around a week after we observed this feeding behavior from the adults, we first began to see the young. At first it was one chick, spotted at the edge of the nest by a keen-eyed visitor; then two chicks, then four. Initially, they looked like white puffballs with too-large heads. As the days passed, they grew larger and developed darker feathers on their faces. These are the first hints of their juvenile plumage.
It is now the last week of June, and the landscape of Champlain has changed as rapidly as the young peregrines. Summer foliage has crept up the cliff face; the leaves on the deciduous trees seem to have emerged overnight. Songbirds, in their bright breeding plumage, cry out in the meadows between the Precipice and the ocean.
On Thursday, June 27th, we set up the scopes for the Peregrine Falcon Watch. We’re hoping today is the day the youngsters will take flight. Unfortunately, though, a thick fog has moved over Champlain. We can hear the kak-kak-kak cries of the youngsters, but they are hidden from our view. In the meantime, we bustle around answering visitors’ questions, always keeping one eye on the cliff face.
Then, for one spectacular moment, the fog lifts. I rush to the scope just in time to catch a glimpse of an immature falcon. It’s perched in the dead tree to the right of its nest, crying out hoarsely all the while. It looks more or less like an adult now; only its immature plumage, browner and duller than an adult peregrine’s, distinguishes it from its parents. The last of its down clings to its body in wisps. Then the blanket of fog sweeps in again and the falcon is lost once more.
Fortunately, the fog soon moves on. It still hugs the south side of the cliff, but the nest and the perched fledgling are visible for now. From our vantage point at the Precipice parking lot, we can see the youngster hop from one branch to the next. It flaps its wings a few times, but it doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with them yet. Sometimes they dangle limply at its sides, as if the bird isn’t aware of them. Otherwise, the youngster extends its wings to feel the passage of air beneath. It perches with its wings fanned out, unmoving, as if suspended in motion.
I begin to think that today won’t be the day – after all, only twenty minutes of our program remain, and the falcon only seems to be testing the waters of flight. But the fledgling is determined to surprise me. Just as noon approaches, the young falcon tumbles out into the empty air, frantically beating its wings, and lands a little less than gracefully on the other side of the tree. It’s the longest we’ve seen any of the youngsters in the air, and everyone in the Precipice parking lot is buzzing about the bird’s exciting first flight.
It’s been an exciting few weeks out at the Precipice: though the cliff face looks unforgiving, it provides the perfect environment for the peregrine falcons to flourish. In the 37 days since they hatched, the falcon chicks have grown from tiny balls of down to sleek juveniles ready for flight. I’ve learned a lot from watching the young falcons and their parents, and I’m excited to see them take their next step towards independence.