Banding brothers duck angry mom, tag falcon chicks

PORT OF OLYMPIA: Group scales huge crane to attach tracking bands to four chicks.

May 24, 2011 

OLYMPIA – Four newly hatched peregrine falcons had some unusual-looking visitors Monday.

Four men, some wielding umbrellas to guard themselves from the chicks’ divebombing mom, stormed their nest atop the taller of two cranes overlooking West Bay at the Port of Olympia.

There, Jack Lewis of Olympia, wearing a hard hat to protect him from the distressed mother falcon, reached into her nest, plucked out four downy white chicks and placed them in a pack.

Back on solid ground, Lewis helped Olympia’s Glenn Phillips place tracking bands on the birds, one on each leg. Then Lewis returned them unharmed to their perch, one of the highest in town. Overhead, their mother circled and screamed.

It’s a yearly ritual. The same nesting couple have spent years on the port’s crane, and every May the pair have chicks. Lewis and Phillips are volunteers, certified by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, to do what amounts to somewhat hazardous duty – at least for Lewis.

The mother falcon rammed into him once Monday and would have done so many more times if it weren’t for three port employees shielding him – and themselves – with umbrellas.

“You’ve got to pay attention,” Lewis said. “If the umbrella leaves you for a moment, she’s on you.”

Falcons are conscientious parents and mate for life, Phillips said. Mother and father take turns hunting smaller birds – such as ducklings or starlings – for a hearty meal. The group found a motley collection of feathers, beaks and bird legs in the nest from previous kills.

Four falcon chicks – in this case, two males and two females – is a big brood. Phillips estimates they’re 18 days old, judging by a booklet that pictures how quickly the chicks grow.

The team that does the banding has to pick exactly the right time to band the falcons, Phillips said. Come too soon, and the chicks will be deprived of their mother’s necessary warmth. Pluck them too late, and the growing birds will attempt to dive to their doom.

The peregrine falcon, which is found throughout the world, has made a remarkable comeback. The birds were endangered in the 1970s because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which made their eggshells thin and vulnerable. But they rebounded after the chemical was outlawed in 1972 and are relatively common in Washington. The species was removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 1999.

As the species has recovered, peregrines have more frequently found urban settings to nest, Phillips said.

“It used to be very unusual, but now it’s very common,” he said. One of the banded birds from years past has found a home on the Ballard Bridge in Seattle, he said.

The birds can be identified by viewing their band through a scope.

Living with the birds is a part of everyday life at the Port of Olympia. Mick Mattson is an electrician who works on the cranes, watching the birds adapt even as the cranes go up and down. He said they become especially aggressive in the spring, when the new generation arrives. The adults are pretty birds, “(But) I think their young chicks look like something out of a cartoon,” he mused.

Phillips said he has been a falconer – someone who tames, trains and hunts with the raptors – since age 10. He has one of his own at home.

He’s a longtime friend of Lewis, a professional climber who has scaled peaks in places such as Patagonia, Australia and Pakistan, Phillips said. Their banding binds them together.

“It’s a team effort,” Lewis said.

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869
mbatcheldor@theolympian.com

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