Along the Shawangunk Ridge, last week was a rapturous one for raptors. On Thursday, August 3, the Mohonk Preserve announced that its seasonal closure of part of the rock climbing and bouldering area of the Trapps had been lifted, because a peregrine falcon chick had fully fledged – for the first time since 2018! The announcement came as happy news for rock jocks and birders alike.
Climbing activity had been curtailed in the sections between and including the pitches known as Laughing Man and Clunie’s Jollies, as well as the bouldering areas from Atlas to Little Death, effective February 1, 2023. Restrictions are tightest at the very beginning of the falcon breeding season, when the raptors are still scouting potential locations for a nest. As of April 1, after the nesting pair had picked their eyrie, the closure area was reduced to the pitches between and including Forty-Eight and Pressure Drop, along with bouldering in the Boxcar area.
The very next day, Friday, August 4, two more young falcons joined the local peregrine population – or at least had the opportunity to stay. As he prepared to release the two birds that he had taken to the Raptor Trust to be rehabilitated after they fell out of their nests onto the Bronx sidewalks, wildlife biologist Chris Nadareski noted that the falcons could well decide to hightail it right back the City again if they wanted. (The name “peregrine” means “wanderer,” after all.) But he explained that it’s considered inadvisable to release them close to where they were first found as chicks, because falcons will not hesitate to attack or even kill young interlopers. “The adult birds stay there year-round and maintain their territory,” said Nadareski.
Nadareski, whose official title is section chief and research scientist at the Wildlife Studies Program at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, is the go-to guy for raptors found in distress in the New York City metro area and Long Island. With its towering bridges and skyscrapers that mimic the clifftop habitat in which this type of falcons originally evolved, plus abundant supplies of food in the form of plump pigeons and other small birds, the City is actually a sort of peregrine paradise, he explained.
Before releasing the two young male birds, Nadareski regaled the crowd that had gathered at the River-to-Ridge Trail parking lot on Springtown Road in New Paltz with a brief history of the reintroduction of the peregrine falcon – still on the endangered species list for New York State – to our region. He paid tribute to the work done by SUNY New Paltz biologist Heinz Meng and Dr. Tom Cade of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in the early 1970s to breed falcon chicks in captivity and release them into the wild, the first of them from the roof of the Faculty Tower on the SUNY campus. Later releases took place along the cliff faces in the Gunks, which at times have harbored as many as three breeding pairs at one time.
By 1983, nesting pairs of peregrine falcons had established themselves atop the Verrazano/Narrows and Throgs Neck Bridges. “New York City now has the biggest concentration in the world,” Nadareski noted. “Many people don’t realize that 25 percent of the City is green – not only parks, but a lot of buildings are being put up with green rooftops. They attract insects, which in turn attract small birds,” which make up the entirety of peregrines’ diet. To hunt on the wing, the birds are able to attain a diving speed that has been clocked at up to 274 miles per hour, making them the “fastest creature on Earth” – though not the fastest flier over sustained distances.
Before turning each falcon loose, Nadareski slowly walked through the crowd, allowing each of the assembled birders a chance to admire and photograph it. He pointed out various aspects of their appearance, including the brownish plumage that will turn grey at maturity, the eye-ring and long, gangly, sharp-taloned feet that will soon both turn bright yellow, the tiny tooth behind the upper beak that enables the falcon to decapitate its prey while still in flight.
For all their formidable weaponry as apex predators, however, life isn’t easy for a young falcon. Besides humans and their own kind, larger raptors are also a threat. “Red-tailed hawks will go after peregrine falcons,” Nadareski said. “In the first year of life, they probably have a 75-to-90-percent chance of dying.”
As it turned out, the two birds released last Friday didn’t seem to have any great urge to head back where they came from. The first flew northward and quickly disappeared behind the treeline. The second, a little larger and stronger, headed east, climbed quickly and then veered northward as well, circling above the trees as if seeking a likely perch from which to spot its lunch. If they ultimately head west toward the crags, they’ll need to share the habitat with the established locals and their newest offspring. Fortunately, there’s plenty of space along the Ridge for these natural cliff-dwellers to spread out.
For more on the progress of the hatchling from the Mohonk Preserve Peregrine Watch, visit www.mohonkpreserve.org/…/peregrine-watch-updates.