Peregrines in Vermont: My AmeriCorps Experience

Conservation Field Specialist Americorps Member Matt Hallahan reflects on his summer monitoring Peregrine Falcons.

On a buggy evening in mid-July, I crouched with one eye glued to a spotting scope, watching a bird like a hawk. My neck was sore from gazing at the sky and a sharp stick gouged into my leg. Heavy rains had flooded roads and made getting here difficult, but I was determined. This late in the year, it was sure to be my last chance to study Peregrine Falcons. I wasn’t going to let nature ruin it.

The female Peregrine stood in the top branches of a large pine. She was slightly bigger than her mate, with unusually brown feathers and a brightly colored leg band that made her easy to distinguish. Three weeks after she had hatched, a researcher had rappelled down the cliff where she and her siblings were nesting and fastened a blue-and-black metal bracelet to her leg. There it would remain for the rest of her life, telling an ever-growing story every time an observer reports her three-digit code. As I squinted through my scope, I could not make out the code behind the bird’s unhelpfully arranged feathers. Until she shifted her feet, here I would remain.

Since we’ve been observing her since March, we know this bird probably failed to raise her own offspring. Observers noticed signs of possible incubation in June, but later reports lack any mention of chicks in the nest. During my visit, I hiked to within fifty yards of her tree without provoking a defensive response. She had nothing to protect. This particular cliff may not be very good habitat. Peregrines have been spotted here for the last four years, but only once have they raised healthy fledglings here. Scattered beer bottles tell a story of frequent parties at the lookout above. Perhaps the revelry was enough disturbance for the birds to abandon their nest . If the cliff was not steep enough, maybe a racoon or weasel climbed down to prey on the chicks. Inexperience could also be a factor; young falcons tend to be less successful at reproduction. Whatever the reason for their nest failure, this knowledge will be documented by state wildlife biologists and contribute to our understanding of the local population.

Vermont Peregrines have had a challenging past. These birds fared poorly in the 20th century and our New England falcons are still recovering . In the 1800s, egg collection and shooting of adult birds began to strain the population. When use of the insecticide DDT became widespread in the 1940s, it was the nail in the coffin. Soon, all Peregrines east of the Mississippi River were eliminated. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring provoked a public outcry against environmental toxins, and a decade later the newly formed EPA banned DDT. In the 80’s, scientists began to re-introduce Peregrines to the Northeast. By 2000, the population was holding steady and 23 breeding pairs of falcons were reported in the state. Today, the birds are faring even better; pairs were identified in at least 40 of the nearly 50 monitored nest sites, including near urban areas. Vermonters can hope to spot falcons at two Burlington parks as well as near hiking trails throughout the state.

Efforts by state biologists and later by volunteer birders have played a major role in the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon. Since re-introduction began, a seasonal monitoring project has documented falcon presence and reproductive success at every known Peregrine cliff in Vermont. This monitoring allows us to track the health of the population and determine if nests are failing due to disturbance, predation or environmental toxins. Hikers and climbers enjoy the same rocky cliffs as Peregrines, and frequent human disturbance can make a bird abandon its young. Consequently, one conservation strategy requires restricting access to cliffs between March and August. The climbing community in Vermont has been a major ally in our monitoring efforts, with groups like CRAG-VT reporting bird sightings and suggesting access routes to remote sites. Volunteers have also played a vital role, allowing conservation biologists to track the population without having to personally monitor ever nest statewide.

My experience studying falcons has been nothing short of a blast. It has allowed me to live my childhood ambition of exploring nature for a purpose. During my site visits, I have encountered hordes of edible mushrooms, watched the progress of the seasons, and hiked some of the most beautiful trails the Green Mountain State has to offer. I have also been swarmed by biting insects, collected painful sunburns and sat still for three-hour stretches that yielded no discernible value. On one visit to Camel’s Hump, I found myself lost on a mountain with impassible cliffs on three sides and a steep uphill bushwhack to return to the trail. The difficulty is part of the experience, and the successes can sometimes feel more rewarding as a result. On the following Camel’s Hump visit, I spotted four healthy chicks sitting on the nest, only just visible through half a mile of heat shimmer. As I watched one edge to the nearby cliff face and cautiously flap its wings, I knew I was witnessing something rare and special. Two generations ago, you would have been lucky to find a Peregrine Falcon anywhere in the United States. Now here in Vermont, they have regained their ancestral home thanks to the very project I have been part of.

Crouching in the leaves on my last day of observation, I admired the sleek beauty of the predator above me. You can learn a lot about patience by watching a raptor. The fastest animal on Earth seemed perfectly content to spend most of her time sitting and watching the trees. An hour into my stay, I finally caught a glimpse of what I was looking for. Two colors and three digits represented one more piece of data to add to the conservation story. I packed up my scope, picked some mushrooms for dinner, and hiked back to my car knowing I had played a role in the Peregrine success story.

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