Peregrine pair sighting raises hopes they’re the ones ousted from port

jdodge@theolympian.comMay 20, 2014 

A pair of peregrine falcons are raising at least two chicks in a rundown, abandoned bald eagle nest in a Douglas fir snag right behind the Governor’s Mansion on the state Capitol Campus.

It’s all but certain that the regal raptors are the same pair rousted this spring from their longtime nest on a Port of Olympia crane, one of two the port paid $390,000 to have dismantled and shipped to a salvage yard in Canada in April.

The occupied nest was spotted last week by legislative photographer and former raptor researcher Aaron Barna, who has answered the question on the minds of many Olympia residents: What happened to the mating peregrine pair after they lost their port nest?

The nest box on the port crane had been in use since spring 2004, one year after a pair of falcons tried unsuccessfully to nest on the crane’s superstructure. Since then, they’ve reared up to four chicks per year.

Barna on Friday set up a telescope on the bridge between north and middle basins of Capitol Lake near Marathon Park to show off his discovery. Sure enough, a female peregrine could be seen on a weathered nest also occupied by at least two downy offspring probably no more than 2 weeks old. The male falcon could be seen circling over the lake.

“Yesterday I saw him chase away an osprey and a bald eagle,” Barna said.

Passers-by on their lunch-hour walk around the lake stopped to peer through the scope, and voice their pleasure that the falcons found a new home.

“I’m so happy to hear they stayed in the area,” said Vicki Armstrong of Olympia. “That’s great.”

It’s rare for peregrine falcons to nest in trees, noted Bud Anderson, a well-known falcon researcher and founder of the Falcon Research Group in Bow, Washington. He only knows of three other records of tree-nesting peregrine pairs in the state. Peregrines prefer ledges, cliffs and some human-created structures, including skyscrapers, towers and bridges. Anderson drove to Olympia on Sunday to see the occupied tree nest firsthand.

“The nest is in horrible condition,” Anderson said. “I can’t believe the peregrine falcons are mating there.”

Anderson also cautioned that it’s not possible to say conclusively that this is the Port of Olympia pair, or that the port pair were the same individuals year after year. The reason: The adults have never been banded to ensure identity.

“Unless they’re banded, you don’t know for sure who’s who,” he said. “But it’s likely the same pair.”

The nest was built by a bald eagle pair in 2000, then abandoned abruptly after the Feb. 28, 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. Before the eagles relocated, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife attached a video camera to the tree to keep public tabs on nest activity as part of the agency’s Watchable Wildlife program. The cable is still visible, but the camera was removed years ago. The Watchable Wildlife program is on hold in 2014, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Craig Bartlett noted.

“The peregrine falcons won’t be on prime time anytime soon,” he quipped.

But members of the public equipped with a spotting scope or high-powered camera can view nest activity from the lake bridge between the north and middle basin. The snag is in a cluster of mature Douglas fir on the lake hillside above a green metal tank next to the campus power plant.

“It’s a great site for people to see the falcons without disturbing them,” Barna said.

As they gain strength, the chicks should start peering over the top of the nest, then start to fly at about 45 days old. The adults will then teach them to how to hunt and prepare them for independent living at about six months.

Peregrine falcons are medium-size birds that can dive on prey, including songbirds, pigeons, ducks and shorebirds, at speeds up to 200 mph.

They were driven to near extinction in the early 1980s by pesticide exposure, but have bounced back from just a handful of occupied territories in the state 30 years ago to more than 100 occupied sites in 2009.

The recovery in numbers might help explain the willingness of some pairs to nest in trees, Anderson said.

Port employees and volunteers in March moved the crane nest box to the roof of the Capitol Center Building, otherwise known as “the mistake by the lake.” Apparently, it didn’t appeal to the nesting pair.

The peregrine adults are frequent visitors to the state Legislative Building, including the Capitol Dome, which they use to hunt and perch, said Barna, who has photos to prove it.

The state Department of Enterprise Services has plans in early June to send an arborist up in a lift to inspect three Douglas fir trees with dead tops next to the mansion, and about 200 yards from the occupied falcon nest, state agency spokesman Jim Erskine said. But the agency will consult with state wildlife biologists first to see whether the activity conflicts with the nesting birds.

“We’re anxious not to disturb the nesting falcons,” Erskine said.

When asked his reaction to his new neighbors, Gov. Jay Inslee seized the moment to lobby for action on climate change. The longtime Audubon Society member marveled at recent bird sightings, including osprey over the Snake River, goldfinch at his Bainbridge Island home and the peregrine falcons on the Capitol Campus.

“We’ve been close to losing these beauties in the past and we must realize the threat carbon pollution presents to our wildlife and do what we can to keep them flying.”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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