June 27, 2016

Banding Day 2016

A peregrine falcon makes his debut

Attending the banding of a falcon is like getting an invitation to a royal coronation.

In addition to their regal, imposing presence, the peregrine falcons living atop W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst are celebrities: last year during nesting season, the Falcon Cam webpage was viewed 288,114 times. Factor in their status as representatives of an endangered species brought back from the perilous brink of extinction, and you realize you are present at rare event indeed.

Peregrines were almost wiped out by DDT in the mid-20th century. After the pesticide was banned in the 1970s, the wild population of peregrines needed help to reestablish itself. UMass Amherst joined a program to reintroduce peregrines in the late 1980s, and falcons have nested atop the library ever since. The webcam,  introduced in 2012, allows an intimate view of their nest life. This current breeding pair moved in to raise their very first brood last year.

Banding day this year was June 13, with one eyas to band. Privileged to be able to cover this event, the University Relations team ascended to the library’s roof with a small group, including Tom French, director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who does the banding. Bands allow conservation officials and researchers to measure the range and distribution of this species in recovery.

The Du Bois Library’s roof has nine-foot ramparts on each side, with the falcons’ nest box atop one of these. Within this concrete frame, we could see clouds scudding about the bright blue, breezy sky. The moment we arrived on the roof, the mother falcon began screeching at us from the box, a rapid-fire repetition that did not cease unless she was in the air. She perched exactly where she could keep one eye on her nestling and the other on us. A minute later, we caught our breath as the father falcon seemed to "apparate" above us, so swiftly did he come slicing through the air, after hearing his mate’s alarm from far off.

Tom French climbed a ladder to reach the box, protected with a helmet from being attacked by a distressed parent falcon. Wearing a thick glove, he reached through the square aperture in the back of the box to grab the nestling. He gently placed the eyas in a canvas bag to carry it down, identified its sex (it’s a boy!), and, with his assistants, flipped the young falcon over to band. The nestling watched French intently as the wildlife worker carefully attached two bands to his leg.

Meanwhile the parents kited above us in the shimmering sun. Peregrines in flight look like they are swimming. They will hold a cable with their claws, open their wings, and simply float off. They stir air with their wings to hover, as though treading water. The mother levitated above us, each feather moving in independent adjustment for absolute precision in flight. The father dove and veered, pulling in his landing gear in free-falling aerodynamic plunges.

French carefully tucked the eyas back into the nest box. The eyas will continue his fledging process, doing flying exercises over the summer. He already fits his adult-size band: falcon legs and feet grow faster than the rest of their body, so birds can be banded safely at three weeks without the bands ever constricting their limbs as they grow.

Once he fledges, the eyas will likely make his home somewhere in the Northeast. So birders, be on the lookout! The eyas’s Mass Wildlife bands are Black 90 over BS Green.