Falcon chicks make their public debut

Four peregrine falcon chicks await their parents’ flying lessons from their nest 175 feet high atop one of the Port of Olympia’s cargo cranes.

Hatched in late April, the fuzzy, white birds with black and brown markings are the latest offspring of a pair of peregrine falcons that have used the port crane with mixed success to rear their young for seven years.

The birds don’t appear fazed by the occasional bustle at the port’s marine terminals. Crane operations are not restricted by the birds’ presence.

The falcon pair first used the port crane without the benefit of a nest box in 2003. The four eggs were jostled during crane operations and failed to hatch.

Before the 2004 mating season, former state Fish and Wildlife biologist Kelly McAllister installed a wooden nest box high in the crane that the adult pair used to hatch one chick. Since then, the birds have hatched anywhere from zero to four birds.

The chicks typically fly the nest in late June. About 30 percent of all peregrine falcon chicks hatched each year survive to age 1, state Fish and Wildlife biologist Eric Cummins has said. The young birds succumb to great horned owls, bald eagles and predators on the ground when they fall from nests.

The state plays host to about 150 nest sites, ranging from remote rural sites to urban settings from Olympia to Bellingham. Not all sites are occupied each nesting season.

Peregrine falcons, the world’s swiftest birds, nearly went extinct in the 1970s as pesticides built up in the food chain. But with the ban of DDT and other toxic chemicals, the birds have made a slow but steady recovery, including removal from the federal Endangered Species Act list in August 1999 and the state endangered list in April 2002.

Employees of the port marine terminal recently took state Fish and Wildlife volunteers up the crane elevator to the nest to place identification tags on the chicks to track their future whereabouts.

The tagging crew fended off the angry parents with umbrellas as they gathered the babies in a day pack and took them to the marine terminal for a tagging operation that took about 20 minutes before they were returned to the nest, port communications manager Kathleen White said.

The chicks in the nest are not visible from the ground, but it’s not unusual to see the adult falcons flying and hunting in the lower Budd Inlet area or perching on the southernmost port crane, where the nest is.

If viewers are armed with binoculars or a spotting scope, they easily can see the falcons from the Olympia Farmers Market parking lot or the Port of Olympia viewing platform.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444