Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Blue Meany, Migrating Raptors and the Falcon Effigies of the Mississippi River

For the better part of five decades, the Peregrine falcon was absent from nesting on the lovely cliffs of the Upper Mississippi River. Re-introduction efforts have now returned the peregrine to these historical haunts. During the 50-year absence of territorial falcons, any and all migrating birds of prey could follow this major flyway each spring on their way to their northern nest site locations without the peregrine falcon to teach them where they could fly - and where they couldn’t. Things have changed. We now have close to 20 cliffs on the Upper Mississippi River that have attracted some level of falcon activity.

During the last two springs, National Geographic has been documenting various birds of prey having to run the gauntlet of Mississippi River falcons. Sometimes, one only has to spend a short time near these cliffs to witness the falcons brutally hammering unaware birds of prey that make the sometimes fatal mistake of flying too close to the cliff wall. Over the last few years we have witnessed the river falcons pummeling Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Red-tail hawks, Great Horned owls, ospreys, and turkey vultures. At this writing, near the first of April, the falcons have set up territory but have yet to lay their eggs. It is a great time to observe nature’s top gun defending the river bluffs. It can be quite a show.

When we first began our falcon cliff releases, we learned of the many falcon effigies constructed by indigenous peoples centuries ago. These falcon effigies are quite large, some with wing spans of hundreds of feet. The native peoples constructed these large effigies by hauling soil to the cliff tops to construct the mounds. Some of these effigies are in the shape of bears and eagles and some clearly the outline shape of the peregrine falcon. It should not surprise anyone that the indigenous peoples were inspired by this relatively small falcon that will bravely take on many larger birds of prey.

I will be gathering images and measurements of the falcon effigies along the Mississippi River for a later publication. However, it now makes sense just why our native peoples were so moved by the Duck Hawk.

(Amy's note: falcon effigies can be found at Effigy Mounds National Monument - the place our release project began. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/efmo)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 21st 2009 Mississippi River cliff survey for peregrine falcons
I arrived at Leo’s Bluff at 9:00 AM and met with Pat Schlarbaum and two friends. They had been there since first light. It was good to break out the spotting scope and within a few minutes capture the band number on the adult female, identified as *K/*W, the same female as last year. The adult male is unbanded. The adult male last year was also an unbanded bird. I was determined to survey as many cliffs as possible and only stayed long enough to determine the band status of the adult falcons. Pat Schlarbaum and his friends stayed for a while longer before setting off to watch the falcons at the nestbox on the Agri-Bunge stack house in McGregor, IA. This is a new site for us. Pat reported lots of falcon activity and was impressed with the city park viewing location.

I confirmed two adult falcons at the Alliant Energy Lansing, IA power plant cliff. The nest box has been permanently removed from the nearby stack and the falcons from now on will be cliff-nesting birds. Last summer we rappelled down several areas of this cliff wall trying to determine a way to deter raccoons from accessing the falcons’ ledge. There is a major construction project at this plant that prevents us from using the back area of the plant to view the cliff. The only places this year to view the falcons is a small opening in the trees directly below the cliff, or from the top of the bluff.

I found a single adult falcon at the Shellhorn Bluff near Brownsville, MN. The falcon was not wailing or making courting sounds. My guess is that we only have this single falcon as of this writing.

I found two falcons at Great Spirit Bluff near La Crescent, MN.

I found two falcons at Queen’s Bluff, aka the Bandshell.

I spent some time watching the Trempeleau, WI cliff from the MN side of the river. The light on the cliff at 11:30 AM was ideal. I did not see any falcons. Upon my return back down river that afternoon, I noticed that the light at 4:30 PM was still lighting up the cliff face.

I did not see a falcon on the Homer, MN cliff during my AM or PM visit.

As I approached Hussen’s Bluff near Minnieska, MN I saw one male falcon giving chase to another male falcon. He escorted the intruder away and returned to the cliff, landing close to an adult female. This cliff is one of the smallest cliffs I have seen with territorial falcons. When a young immature Bald Eagle made the dumb mistake of flying too close to the small cliff, both adult falcons gave chase. Later, when meeting with the owners of the cliff, they asked me if I saw the falcons hammering the eagle directly over their house. Last summer I hiked to the top of the bluff and was disappointed that only one falcon remained on site and this bird was no longer defending the cliff. I rappelled down several parts of the cliff wall and could not locate any potential nest ledge that raccoons could not have access. If this pair fails to be productive this year we are going to mount an artificial rock eyrie on a mammalian-proof part of the cliff wall.

I did not find a falcon at the Pepin Heights cliff just south of Lake City, MN. I found two adult falcons at Horizon Milling. I was able to confirm that the very aggressive falcon named Lolo 29/A is once again on site.

As I was driving into the city of Red Wing, MN I could see two falcons stooping at two people on the roof of the Red Wing Grain building. This nest can be seen from most anywhere in town and the falcons could easily be seen and heard trying to drive the intruders away from their nest. I wonder what the public thinks when we carry out the bandings each summer.

I crossed the river at the bridge in Red Wing, MN and made my way down to West Bluff. I only took a few minutes owing to the lack of parking down below this cliff and did not see any falcons during my short visit. However, the owners of the cliff have become keen supporters and I am confident that they will contact us again when they see falcons.

I did not see any falcons during a ten minute stay at Maiden Rock, but Amy Ries confirmed a falcon on this cliff an hour prior.

I found a single adult falcon at Maassen’s Bluff, but Amy Ries saw two falcons earlier in the day. Gary Grunwald, our falcon enthusiast that lives below this cliff, is on his way back from his Florida haunts. When Gary returns he will quickly locate which area of this huge cliff the falcons are using.

I met with Doug and Becky Wood in Fountain City, WI. Doug confirmed that one falcon is back and very probably just arrived this same day.

No falcons were seen at Indian Head south of Fountain City, WI where in past seasons we have observed some falcon activity. Maybe this year?

Two adult falcons have been back on Castle Rock cliff for at least ten days according to Doug Wood.

No falcons were seen at the Alma Marina cliff where Great Horned Owls have claimed the single pot hole on this cliff face.

I did find one adult falcon at 12 Mile Bluff directly across from the Alma, WI power plant. In the past, the falcons have nested both up in the stack nest box and on the nearby cliff wall. The next few weeks should tell where they will end up this season. If they are not being found on camera up on the stack, they will be on the cliff.

Logged 330 miles.

Brief status of RRP nest sites.
  1. MN Power Cohasset, MN: Status unknown as of this date. The plant is trying to get the camera repaired. Last year this pair failed to hatch their eggs due to the very cold weather.
  2. MN Power Duluth plant: There has been some discussion to relocate or remove the nest box at this plant. Two years ago, the aggressive falcons prevented a required stack inspection. The decision to leave the nest box in place or relocate the nest box to another area of the plant will be at the direction of plant management.
  3. Xcel Energy SHERCO plant near Becker, MN: Two falcons have been on territory for several weeks now. Dan Orr feels that we could expect the first egg most any day now. We now have a camera in this nest and egg/young status will be easy to follow.
  4. Xcel Energy Monticello plant: This is a low pressure nuclear plant and access is limited. Dan Orr has taken over all aspects of managing and banding young falcons at this plant.
  5. Great River Energy Elk River, MN: This plant has what I think is one of the best bird camera systems that I know of. You can get live video and live audio of this nest. The other day at 7:00 AM in the morning two adult falcons were fighting inside the nest box. The live video and audio only made watching this brutal battle only uglier. Don’t know for sure who won the battle.
  6. Xcel Energy Riverside plant MPLS, MN: Over the last several years an un-banded female falcon has owned this nest box 400’ up the stack. This un-banded female goes through the courting motions but fails to lay eggs each season. We should find out very soon if she is back once again. The stack at this plant is scheduled to be razed in the next year or two. When the stack is removed, we will mount a new nest box on one of the tallest structures of the plant overlooking the river.
  7. Xcel Energy Blackdog plant Eagan, MN: Once again we have falcons back at this nest box located 620’ up on the stack. In 2008 we found the remains of the aggressive adult female Nora along with the remains of an immature falcon at the bottom of a gas turbine stack . Recently, the remains of three of last year’s progeny were found in this same place. My first reaction was to pull the nest box to prevent future deaths. However, in giving it more thought, I felt that we need to address this problem for the entire industry as more and more power plants are switching from coal to this type of gas turbine facility. Dan Orr has located some large spikes made by a company in England. The spikes are designed to deter birds from perching. We are hoping to install these spikes to the top rim of the 320’ stack to discourage falcons from perching. The gas turbine plant is what is called an off peak plant. When there is increased need for electricity for air conditioning in the summer and heat in the dead of winter is when this turbine comes on line. When not in use, the rim of the 320 stack is a perch. Our hopes are to find a way to deter falcons/birds from this problem area and to make recommendations to the manufacturer of this design of electric turbine generation facility.
  8. Xcel Energy Highbridge plant St. Paul, MN: The nest box was removed from this plant before the 2008 nesting season and the stack was imploded. We installed a nest box a short distance upstream from the plant at an ADM facility. The falcons went to the nearby High Bridge to nest in 2008 instead of using the ADM nest box.
  9. Xcel Energy King plant Oak Park Heights, MN: It was 21 years ago that we installed the first power plant falcon nest box at this plant. The nest is located at the 400’ level of the 800’ stack. We know that the resident adult female remained on site all last winter. We have yet to confirm the bands on the adult male. With a fancy pan/tilt and zoom camera; we will quickly confirm band numbers as visits to the nest increase. The unique falcon plant program began at this plant in 1988. As the falcon power plant program expanded since that time two decades ago; we are very close to witnessing our 1,000th young falcon fledged from a mid-west power plant. What unique marriage. What an incredible contribution to falcon recovery.
  10. Xcel Energy Prairie Island nuclear plant Red Wing, MN: The nest box at this plant is mounted to the top of the vertical wall of a containment dome. We anticipate this nest to be productive as it has each year since it was first installed many years ago. We have had some discussions about relocating the nest box to an area near the top of the containment dome that would not require rappelling. We are also looking at installing cameras at that time.
  11. Red Wing Grain Red Wing, MN: The falcons have been back at this nest box now for over two weeks. The camera at this nest will help determine hatch and banding dates. Several elementary schools in the Red Wing area follow the Red Wing Grain falcons in the internet.
  12. Horizon Milling Lake City, MN: Camera to provided egg/young status
  13. Pepin Heights cliff south of Lake City, MN: We will continue to monitor this cliff that has attracted falcons in 2007 and 2008.
  14. Dairyland Alma, WI plant: As mentioned earlier, we have yet to determine if the falcons will nest up on the stack or the nearby cliff.
  15. Dairyland Genoa, WI plant: Two falcons are defending this stack nest once again this year. Last week there was a brutal battle inside the nest box witnessed by several falcon cam followers. No dead falcon has been found at the plant.
  16. Alliant Energy Nelson Dewey plant Cassville, WI. The adult male falcon G/V was found dead at the plant this last year. The camera at the plant works off and on. Need to visit the plant to determine status.
  17. US Bank La Crosse, WI: On 3/6/09 I installed a camera in this nest box and while completing the last of the few minute installation, two falcons began to protest. Our hopes are to run the video/audio signal down to the building lobby where the public and see and hear the nesting falcons.
  18. Agri-Bunge stack house McGregor, IA: We installed this nest box about ten years ago. The year following the installation it attracted a single male peregrine falcon then sat empty for many years. In 2008 we had an adult male and immature female in residence that failed to be productive. This year, two adult falcons are claiming the nest.

Along with the above nest box sites, we monitor over twelve cliffs on the Wisconsin side of the river, six on the Minnesota side, and 4 in Iowa. I will carry out another cliff survey next week.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Mississippi River falcon survey on 3/13/09
Report by Bob Anderson

I met Dave Kester and Leo, his son just outside of Waukon Junction, IA on the morning of 3/13/09. I knew we were in for a fun day when Dave pointed out to Leo two adult Bald Eagles and Leo responded, “No Dad, there are three eagles.” He was correct. We had very cold weather for the week prior, but the weather man/person promised a day of sun and temperatures above freezing. We were anxious to search for falcons on bluffs. At a small cliff we call Leo’s Bluff a short distance upstream from Waukon Junction, IA we immediately located an adult falcon perched on a dead cedar snag high on the cliff wall. We also heard another falcon making the courting wailing call a bit downstream. Our soon-to-be-five year-old apprentice was wondering what could be so exciting looking at a white blob up in a tree. We were pleased to find two falcons on our first cliff of the survey.

At the Lansing, IA power plant cliff we quickly located two adult falcons. This is an interesting nest site. In past years when we made a nest box available up on the power plant stack, the falcon would be productive. However, we removed the stack nest box and mounted a nest box to the cliff wall a few years ago. When the falcons nested in this cliff nest box they were also productive. Over the last few years the falcons have ignored the cliff nest box and moved to a large ledge mid wall on the cliff. Oddly, the falcons continue to use this ledge even though year after year their eggs or young have been depredated by raccoons. This last summer we rappelled down the cliff wall at several places, hoping to locate just where the raccoons access the ledge and install some sort of deterrent. We were not able to determine the exact access point. Once again this year, production on this cliff will be determined by where the falcons nest and access by raccoons.

We crossed the river in Lansing, Iowa and made our way to the series of cliffs near Lynxville, WI. We did not find falcons on site on this day but noticed that the river was still frozen. We continued downstream to the cliff at Lock and Dam 9 and did not find falcons, probably due to the river still frozen in this region.

We crossed the river once again in Prairie du Chien, WI and headed to McGregor, IA where last year we attracted an adult male falcon and immature female falcon to a nest box on the milling stack house that towers over this small river town. We did not find falcons on Friday the 13th, but Dave returned to the stack house the next day and was pleased to confirm an adult peregrine on site. We first mounted this nest box about ten years ago and maybe, just maybe, 2009 will be the year for success.

I will carry out a river survey searching the cliffs and nest boxes upstream on the west side of the river from Lansing, IA to Red Wing, MN and all of the WI cliffs and nest boxes later this week. It will be nice to re-new friendships with the cliff land owners and with luck, find new cliff sites with territorial falcons.

Here we go again…..

Bob Anderson