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Something Wild: Peregrine Falcon Field Trip

For the past 20 years, peregrine falcons have shared the cliffs in Rumney with the rock-climbing community, and Chris Martin has been directing the monitoring of these birds since they arrived.  In addition to tracking the progress of the falcons as they emerged from their endangered status, Chris and the Forest Service work closely with the climbing community to support recreation and maintain the safety of the falcons. 

Last year he took Something Wild co-host Dave Anderson and producer Ross Boyd (that's me) to visit the raptors.  It was a tough first hike of the season (three inches of snow had fallen the night before and Chris had to guide us along what he assured us were trails) but the payoff was spectacular.

Peregrines can't nest just anywhere and so the geography of New Hampshire dictates where these birds settle down.  The cliffs in Rumney are perfect for the falcons, who prefer ledges on vertical cliffs.  There are about forty-four peregrine falcons living in the state and the pair in Rumney "own" all the cliffs in the area.  Peregrines are territorial, especially when it comes to other peregrines, so you won't find more than two at a given site.  With that much space all to themselves, the falcons may choose to nest on any cliff they want. For the safety of the climbers and the birds, the cliff housing that season's nest is always closed, requiring close monitoring around this time of year as Chris wants to be sure he's not closing an area needlessly.

Chris Martin on peregrine falcons' endangerment and recovery.

On this trip both peregrines were very active, a clear indication that there are no eggs yet.  When there are eggs in the nest, the falcons become very secretive.  The female (the larger of the pair) will spend most of her time guarding the nest while the male gathers food.  We watched a food exchange between the falcons where the male flies around the nest announcing his arrival, the female flies out to meet him and takes the food - in midair!  Chris explained this is pre-nesting behavior; the male retrieves food, usually a small bird, and offers it to the female - a courting phase where the male proves he will be a reliable mate.

How do the falcons feel about sharing the cliffs with people?

As we approached the Summit cliff where the falcons have nested for the last several years, we saw interactions between the peregrines and ravens who also have a nest in the area.  Most of the time they co-exist fine, but occasionally a line is crossed - as it was this day.  Chris explained that peregrines eat small birds and will often cache their catches in crevices on the cliff and that the ravens, being scavengers, will try to raid those caches. We watched this scenario play out, then the peregrines announced their disapproval by aggressively swooping through the air until the ravens retreated.

Chris Martin explains that peregrine falcons don't build nests.

When they're dropping out of the sky, you can barely follow them with binoculars. 150, maybe 200 miles per hour. - Chris Martin

Peregrine falcons have a reputation as the fastest animals in North America.  Chris estimated that they can reach speeds of 150 to 200 miles per hour.  These speeds are reached only in short bursts as they dive, but  they average around 50 to 60 mph while flying in a straight line - still pretty fast!  This is a falcon's primary weapon while hunting, they tuck in their wings and dive into a flock of birds (such as blue jays), stunning their prey, then swinging back around to collect their prize as it falls.

Being so close to peregrine falcons and seeing them in action was amazing and I couldn't have asked for a better guide!  You can learn more about the management and monitoring of peregrine falcons by visiting the NH Audubon page.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Senior Director of Education for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he has worked for over 30 years. He is responsible for the design and delivery of conservation-related outreach education programs including field trips, tours and presentations to Forest Society members, conservation partners, and the general public.
Chris Martin has worked for New Hampshire Audubon for close to 35 years as a Conservation Biologist, specializing in birds of prey like Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Northern Harriers.
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