Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You know you've been to a lot of falcon bandings when everyone ignores the banders to take pictures of the rattlesnake sunning itself just 40 feet from the drop spot.Of course, the snake was as thick as a baseball bat. Then again, you know you're in a crowd of nature enthusiasts when one person yells "Rattlesnake!", and everyone else runs toward him.

We banded at four sites on Tuesday, June 9th: West Bluff, just north of Maiden Rock, Maiden Rock, 12-Mile Bluff, right behind the Alma power plant, and Bay State Flour Milling in Winona, MN - my first flour mill! The crew consisted of Bob Anderson, his son Jeremy Anderson, Ben Ogren, and Amy Ries. We were joined by a number of people, including John Dingley, Gary Grunwald, Doug Wood, John Thiel, and several others.

We started right in with West Bluff. Ben Ogren, Bob, and I looked at West from down at the bottom. This is the cliff where Dave nearly severed his rope last year attempting to swing into the eyrie. Ben decided he would rappel down and climb into the eyrie instead. I would drop with him, get him the kennel, and provide whatever support I could. Let me explain something for any climbers that might be reading this - we weren't rigging for climbing on a dynamic rope, but for rappeling and working on a static rope. For you nonclimbers, the shock of a fall on static line is taken by your body and anchor, not the rope. Static falls can break bones, severely damage tissue, and break or rip out gear and anchors. It was critical that Ben avoid falling.

We got up to the top and I dropped to age the babies. Just as I got under the overhang, Bob said, "Oh, by the way, that's the spot where Dave almost severed his rope last year, so be careful." I avoided a clever response, rappeled down to the eyrie to age the babies (age: okay for banding) and kicked back to watch the Ben Ogren show. After all, the Boss had told me to be careful!

Ben got over the edge just fine (he's experienced), but had a brief moment of losing it when he got into position for climbing over to the eyrie. Our look from below completely failed to convey the sketchiness of our placement, the sheer and utter crappyness of the loosest, most brittle rock imaginable, and the lodging of Ben's rock in a large crack that was filled with sharp edges. "How hasn't one of you died!?" Ben yelled. I yelled back something encouraging about how badly the rock sucked, and Ben asked me to tell him whether or not his foot placements were good as he eased across a narrow ledge into the eyrie. I gave him feet and hand suggestions while he climbed, managed the rope and got into the eyrie. Out of the fire and into the frying pan: I lowered the kennel, he filled it with four lustily vocalizing, footing baby monsters (peregrines), and up the they went.

West is impossibly beautiful. I hope that Ben sends me photographs for posting. It looks north towards the mouth of Lake Pepin. We were about the tallest thing around, and you could see the river valley for miles. The eyrie was large and well protected by an overhang, so the babies were safe from weather, raccoons, and (judging by the whitewash and their overall health) starvation. We found blue jay remains and spotted the head of a black bird about 5 feet below us. Blue jay remains showed up at several sites this year.

Bob and Jeremy banded the young falcons and I lowered the kennel down, using my height (I was hanging in air about 12 to 15 feet above him), to gently swing the kennel over. He grabbed it, used a daisy chain to back it up to his harness, and was again repeatedly footed while getting the babies back into the eyrie. Up we went. I had to work my way out from under a very large overhang, on gear only, while Ben had to climb back out of the eyrie and carefully take up rope until he could swing out without falling. It was quite an adventure!

We headed to Maiden Rock next. Here's a photograph with the eyrie marked. It's roughly in the middle of the bluff this year, not on the point. Bob was excited about his 100th rappel on river cliffs here - and a little worried about disturbing baseball-sized rattlesnakes after Ben spotted one. Bob and Jeremy celebrated his 100th rappel together with a first-ever father-son banding on the cliff - Bob thought the rock was a little too loose to haul the babies up, and there was a bit of an overhang there as well. They banded three healthy young falcons at Maiden Rock.

You know, I ended up setting anchors for other people this year. That's a difficult thing to do. I'll willingly go down an anchor I set, but it is hard to watch other people do the same thing - I'm much more nervous for them than I would be for myself. It was a real relief to see Jeremy come up, or hear Bob get to the bottom. The life of a rappeler is at least partly in the hands of the anchor setter. It's not easy to get used to.

We pulled up gear and headed for 12-Mile bluff, a big crumbly bluff behind the Alma power plant. They were nesting in the exact same spot they nested two years ago - a hole way down the wall, almost even with the treeline. I climbed through the dead snag from hell, tossed all the loose rock I could see from the top of the bluff, and rappeled through a cedar tree down to the first terrace, where I sheltered under an overhang until Jeremy joined me. I went down another eight to ten feet to get the babies. There were four healthy youngsters in a small hole sheltered by an overhang. Had the parents nested on the ledge above, the babies would have been eaten by racoons - there was racoon poop all over! They were safe and well fed here, however. The prey remains were well picked over and not real obvious to me, but I believe I saw some warbler remains, judging by the size of the feet and the cliff's location on river bottom land.

Bob got the kennel up through the cedar tree and the snag. They quickly banded the babies and dropped them back. I earned a few footings but got them into the eyrie and Jeremy and I headed down the cliff and on to the talus. As nasty as that was, neither one of us was interested in climbing back up through the cedar snag. This bluff also has a lot of loose rock, which poses a very real danger to humans and young falcons alike. The less disturbance, the better!

We took a quick break to try to get band numbers while we watched the male peregrine eat a pigeon. I'm glad he got dinner, since we went straight to Bay State Milling in Winona. About 10 years ago, a girl named Maggie Lubinski put a nestbox on the roof of Bay, where her father works, as part of a 4-H project. The box sat mostly empty until this year, when two falcons nested there. The adult female is Chicklet, a 2005 hatch from Dairyland Power Genoa. We don't know who the male is yet.

Bob, Jeremy, Doug, the plant manager, and a plant employee all headed up to get the falcons. We needed hairnets, a beardnet (for Bob), and special harnesses to stay safe on the roof. We loaded three babies into the kennel, brought them down into the plant's entrance, and banded them for everyone to see. There is a nice story about it here:

It was a good day on the river.