Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Banding Prairie Island - by Guest Blogger Frank Sperlak

On Wednesday 6/11/08, plant employees Mark Kenall and Frank Sperlak made the climb to the top of the U-1 Containment dome along with Raptor Resource Project (RRP) members Bob Anderson, Amy Ries, and Dan Berger. The team was on a tight schedule as they were going to be in the area that day only. We were scheduled to be the first of three banding sites for the Project that day. The sky looked menacing, but we were able to complete the banding between rain showers.

It was interesting to have the opportunity to talk Peregrines with Dan Berger, who now resides in California. Dan was one of the first people to study Peregrines and he started banding the birds in the early 1950’s. He is a mentor of Bob Anderson, who heads up the RRP. Dan was eager to come to our site and see the progress we have made in keeping Peregrine numbers up here in the Upper Midwest. He is both an environmentalist and a huge supporter of nuclear power.

As we expected from monitoring the nest box from the spotting scope in the Environmental Lab, there were two baby falcons. Both were females. There were also two dead eggs in the nest. What was surprising was the age difference between the babies, which are also called eyasses. They were at least a week apart in age, which Bob and Dan said was very uncommon. Usually the eggs all hatch within 24-48 hrs of each other.

The adult female was keeping an eye on the situation and voiced her displeasure as the team temporarily took custody of her babies. She is much less aggressive than most, as Bob and his team frequently get struck while banding birds at other sites. Mom Peregrine has been at this site for many years and at 15 years of age is the oldest female at any of the RRP nesting sites. She originated from the old Montgomery Wards tower in St. Paul, before it was demolished in the mid 1990’s. The adult male is unknown.

Since the nest box was installed in 1995, 35 young Peregrines have hatched from atop U-1 Containment.

-Frank Sperlak

Raptor Resource Project director Bob Anderson with the older of the two females. This was one feisty girl! She nailed Bob’s hand when he took her out of the box and continued to try to foot him while he banded. When Amy and Bob had one leg, she tried to foot him with the other. When Dan Berger held that leg, she bent over and made repeated attempts to nail him with her beak. Note the grey sky - the Raptor Resource Project was dodging storms all day long. Containment dome top, on rope cliff-side, or 400' up a coal stack - the rumble of thunder is NOT welcome!

Amy Ries and Bob Anderson band a baby falcon. Amy spent a great deal of time learning how to band this spring. Note that the falcon's leg is straight out from its body - you can never twist or pull the leg funny, so pay attention to the falcon! Let it tell you where its leg should be. Also, get a good bite on the band and grab your tools by the ends, not the middle - leverage works better that way. Take it slow and steady. Don't let the crowds bother you. If you attempt to draw blood, you have to stop shaking with nervousness. Thinking about shaking does not actually stop shaking very effectively. Have Bob band all babies when thunderstorms are coming. I'll have more to post about this subject in a later blog.

Note the difference in size between the two falcons. As Frank mentioned, the difference is unusual. Although we banded at new sites this year, it seems like productivity was a little lower in many places. The cold and snowy spring may have had an effect on our nests.

We were asked quite a bit about the size of the bands. The bands are sized appropriately for adult falcons, so the babies will not grow out of them as they age. Purple bird banding lab band on the right, black over green color band on the left. The bands help researchers track falcons. The adult female at this site came from the old Montgomery Wards building in St. Paul. She hatched in 1993, which makes her 15 years old. Yes, the feet are really, really large.

Dan Berger on rope. Climb on, Dan! I hope to see you next year.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bandings at Maasen's Bluff and Castle Rock by Guest Blogger Dot K.

As I drove to Maassens’ Bluff, the weather radio in the car was announcing severe weather warnings – flash floods, thunder storms, tornadoes – but they were all to the north and west of where I was headed. They made their way south and east fast enough that I had to pull into a Kwik-Trip before the bridge over the river at Wabasha, MN. The Fire Department across the street had their doors open and the crew was at the ready. Fortunately, the storm continued to pass with only very heavy rain and after a 10-minute delay, I was on the road again to Maassens' Bluff.

I got there a little before our 10 a.m. meeting time. Gary Grunwald, Doug Wood and several friends and people from the DNR were already there. Bob and Dan, Amy and Joan, and Dave soon arrived and we were ready to head up to the top of the bluff. We could drive most of the way along a track between the restored prairie and the woods. It is very beautiful – wildflowers and prairie grass.

We parked the vehicles and headed the short way up to the bluff face. The falcons were kak-kak-ing away when we got up toe the top of the bluff. Amy, Dave and Bob went over the side optimistic they would find young falcons in the eyrie. Disappointment set in when only one unhatched egg --- and a white on at that --- was found in the eyrie. Upon reflection, it was though that perhaps it was a pigeon egg since it did not have the coloration of a falcon egg. The rain had stopped, the sky was beautiful – we could see some sun. But no young falcons to band was disappointing.

We arrived at Castle Rock an hour behind schedule. It looked even more intimidating than I remembered, but somehow I felt I could make it to the top. Bob broke off a nice walking stick for me and we slogged up a wet, slippery and barely discernable trial to the top. It was tough – at one point, I wanted to just lie down and let the mosquitoes eat me. A lot of the way I climbed on all fours. We made it up to the top slowly, but by the end, Amy and Dave were doing most of the carrying. I was pretty wiped out. We got to the top Amy noticed that the sky was getting dark and it looked like rain was heading for us so she and Dave roped up and went over the side and quickly found the eyrie and the eyasses. Bob acted as the pivot point and Joan fed the rope to lower the carrier down to retrieve the eyasses for banding.

Just as the carrier came over the top, Bob said, “Is that a drop of rain?” It was OK, the raindrops felt good as we were hot and sweaty (or glistening). What started as a couple of drops got heavier as we were banding them. There were four big, feisty eyasses, two female and two male. Joan held the eyasses while Bob banded and I wrote down their band numbers. We got them back in their carrier and lowered it down to Amy and Dave, who waited out of the rain at the eyrie. They got them out of the carrier and safely back in the eyrie. Both then climbed back and just as Dave got over the top, the skies opened.

We packed up the gear as fast as we could and started down. The rain was like a torrent – I know I went down a good part of the way on my behind – we made very fast progress because we were slipping and sliding from tree to tree. Our clothes were soaked; the gear we were carrying was becoming increasingly wet and heavy with water. My glasses were sheeted with rain; I could barely see and because my hands and my clothes were covered with mud, there was nothing I could do but scrunch them down on my nose and peer over the top as I was slip-slided my way down that bluff using far too many four-letter words.

It was scary and fun at the same time. Both Joan and I were carrying ropes in backpacks. Amy was carrying the falcon transporter with the rope used to lower it and Dave and Bob were carrying their ropes and climbing gear so we were really laden down. We were so strangely happy to see the bulldozer that was clearing more land to build more houses in this beautiful, secluded area. The first time I went up Castle Rock in 2005, there were maybe one or two houses. Now there were another four or five big houses already built and the land was cleared for perhaps two more.

I said to Amy “see this stick that I’m using as a walking stick – well I’m going to keep this as a souvenir and if I say I’m going to climb Castle Rock next year, I want you to beat me over the head with it.” But, God willing, I’ll do it again next year. To end this on a positive note, the rain did clear away all the mosquitoes – we encountered none on our way down.
Dot K

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How many ways are there to say rain? After Saturday's torrent at Castle Rock, we retired to Joan's beautiful place in Fountain City. She and her husband Jeff fixed a delicious dinner and we all headed for bed. Had we not been in southwestern Wisconsin to band falcons the rain, punctuated by thunderstorms at 10:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 4:00, would have been peaceful. As it was, I kept remembering the greasy rock at Maasens and wondering whether or not we'd be able to band anywhere on Sunday. It didn't look very promising in the morning. Every station reporting in - and there were several, including Decorah, that were not - mentioned rain, thunderstorms, flash floods. We decided to head upriver and look at Maiden Rock, just in case. After all, we could always scrub. Away the caravan went.

The sky had lightened considerably by Maiden Rock, so we decided to go for it. John Dingley, owner of the Merlin's Rest bar in Uptown Minneapolis, had a bus full of birders stopping by to see the show. The West Wisconsin Land Trust, which owns Maiden, narrated the event while we headed up.

Dave Kester and I dropped to get the babies. They were under a slight overhang in a long horizontal crack by a really large, roughly rectangular block. We wedged ourselves in and Dave caught the single baby, which he handed to me. I got it in the cage and Bob, who was the top man, pulled it up. Now I've been top man (well, top girl). I think it's harder to top, since you spend all your time backing off the cliff: not a comfortable position by any means. I'd much rather spend 30 or 40 minutes by the eyrie than 10 or 15 poised right at the edge of the cliff. Bob banded the single baby (named Winona by John's group) and dropped her back down to us. We put her back and ascended up. On to West Bluff.

West was a steep, slippery mess. We went down to the usual drop spot, only to discover that the falcons had moved upstream. We found the new spot and Dave dropped down.

The falcons were nesting in a hole under an overhang roughly 12 feet deep. Think of a plumb bob. On rope, that's how we operate - you can't hang off true without a lot of effort. Dave, who was hanging straight off the overhang, decided to swing into the hole and see if he could wedge himself in to get the babies. He swung once. He swung twice. He swung multiple times and then looked up to see that the rock was sawing his rope in two. This was bad.

With his grigri on his rope and his ascender on Bob's rope, he managed to get up off the cliff. I hope to never be in that kind of a jam again - check out Dave's rope. Seriously, that's a bad one.

We got the equipment pulled and headed for a wonderful finish at Dan and Sheila's house. Day's total: 1 banded baby, 3 unbanded babies, 1 fried rope, and at least 3 people biting their nails. At least Monday would be a day of rest. We needed it! For more pics, check out our forum.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Man, did it rain this weekend! We started the weekend banding on Friday, at the US Bank Building in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Now, I've ridden on coffin-sized industrial stack elevators, clambered up muddy hills, rappelled off bluffs, and squirmed my way through thickets of cedar and poison ivy just to band baby falcons. But this was the first time I ever strolled into a lovely lobby, stepped on a comfortable elevator, and walked over plush carpet on my way to an eyrie. I was almost disoriented by the time we got to the roof. Was I here to band falcons or make a deposit?

The roof of the US Bank Building was sunny, but very windy. Dave and Bob quickly retrieved the three young birds and brought them down to the lobby to band. You can read about the details in the LaCrosse Tribune. After LaCrosse, Dave, Bob, Dan Berger, Joan, and myself all headed to Homer Bluff, which was occupied by falcons for the first time last year. Well, the first time in 50 or so years.

Dan Berger banded the last falcons to nest on this cliff in 1952. We have something like apostolic succession happening here: Dan worked with the great naturalist Aldo Leopold. Bob works with Dan, a hero of his. Dave, myself, and the rest of us work with Bob. And so the tradition - and handshake - of Aldo Leopold is carried forward into the future. Long may it last!

Here is a picture of Dan Berger, on rope at Homer after 56 years. The eyrie isn't far from the top. Dan has just helped Dave Kester procure the babies and is working the kennel around so Bob can pull it up. Once we got the babies to the top, I worked on my banding skills and drew blood from a female. We then packed the birds up and headed to Decorah for the evening.

The next morning dawned sunny and clear. So what was up with all those rainy weather forecasts? Did the weatherman have a clue? We laughed and sucked down bagels and coffee before heading to the big river. Little did we know what was waiting us.

The sky turned dark about Hokah, and it began to rain as we headed upriver. Of course, the Winona Bridge had to closed this weekend - locals say that engineers were able to hammer through the gusset plates, they were so rusted - and we had to go up to Wabasha to cross into Wisconsin. Just about the time we hit Wabasha, the sky bucketed. We had inches of rain. We had hail. We had cupped inverted clouds with streamers that wanted to coalesce into tornados. I'd have a photograph, but I was too busy keeping my little car on the road.

I'd like to say that we found three or four healthy babies at Maasen's Bluff, but we didn't find any. They weren't in the eyrie we'd thought they were and we couldn't find them anywhere. Dave bounced around the rock like a monkey and I dropped down below the treeline and made something like a 200-foot ascent looking them. No babies. I do hope to get back there for observation before the season is over. Maybe we can find the eyrie if we see the female enter it.

After failing to find babies at Maasens, we left for Castle Rock. Castle Rock is a grueling experience. We don't have access to the top of the bluff by road, so we have to hump all the gear up a steep slope through mud, poison ivy, brambles, cane thickets, and mosquitos. Bob, Dave, Joan, Dot, and I all made the trip. Dave and I roped up on top, and off we went.
Castle Rock has a real serious pucker factor. It's a big rock bulge with an overhang immediately below. You know you have it on the line from the first approach.

Here's Dave at the top. The babies are located in an eyrie below a slightly bigger overhang, so it is a bit of a bear to get to. We did reach it, though, and pulled four healthy 28-30 day old babies for Bob, who was manning the kennel up top - a job that I think might be harder than going over. Once Bob had the kennel up top, we relaxed in the eyrie and watched rain sweep over the river valley. If it hadn't been for the occasional rumble of thunder, it would have been quite peaceful.

Bob banded the babies very quickly (see right) and sent them down to us. We got up top just before the torrential rains began. I've never been so wet in my life as I was coming down that hill. But we slipped, slid, and stumbled to the bottom. Props, crew - you all rock!

I'll tell you about Maiden Rock and Dave's near death experience in the next installment. In the meantime, check Dot's slideshow for pics or take a look at our forum.

Amy Ries