For nine years, a pair of peregrine falcons have made their home in an unlikely place: the smokestacks of a Virginia power plant.
But animal researchers say the unique resting place might have spurred the rise of a new kind of Virginia falcons, bred with peregrines from other areas, after the birds disappeared more than a half-century ago. It’s also helping researchers amid a biological renaissance uncommon in nature.
One falcon, the female, came from the Betsy Ross Bridge in New Jersey. Her partner was born at a power plant in Maryland. Home is now near the top of a red and white smokestack at Dominion Energy’s Possum Point Power Station.
Together in Virginia for nearly a decade, they’ve had 25 young ones in a nest box placed by researchers. It’s a wooden box with a roof, two open sides and a bottom full of pea gravel, which is ideal for laying eggs. It is meant to mimic the type of home falcons would make on a cliff.
They love to overlook water, and they love to be up high.
Researchers from the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University band the legs of each of the pair’s baby falcons, known as eyases, at the plant in Prince William County, as part of a partnership that began 12 years ago. During the banding process, metal tags are placed on their legs as the offspring are weighed and examined. Feather and blood samples are taken before the young are returned to their nest.
The exam is performed while the chicks still have a dusting of down feathers covering their flight feathers.
Several days ago, Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at William & Mary and VCU, journeyed about 350 feet up the smokestack to look at the three youngest additions to the nest, two females and a male. The elevator’s vibration as it ascended prompted one falcon to alert the others. The call was a loud alarm — a squawking warning that something was approaching.
Watts quickly collected two of the 30-day-old chicks and placed them in plastic red and blue containers. The third chick, too young to be on his own, dashed amid the commotion — testing his wings by gliding away and disappearing into the forest.
It was a brief getaway, but for two days, the search was on.
Watts said banding the young birds helps researchers monitor the population size. Some have numbers that can be seen from afar, and others are color-coded (Virginia’s are a forest-green shade). He said bands help keep track of the number of pairs in the area and tell researchers how many young they are producing.
It’s a far cry from the early 1960s, when the eastern peregrine falcon was virtually wiped out east of the Mississippi River amid widespread pesticide usage — going from 25 pairs to none in Virginia and from 350 pairs to nearly gone in eastern North America, Watts said. The peregrine was placed on the endangered list, and the birds were slowly reintroduced to the area.
The first time the new breed of peregrine falcons laid eggs in Virginia was 1982, and now the state has more than 30 peregrine pairs. Elsewhere, Maryland has 28 confirmed nesting pairs as of 2016, the District has one and Delaware has five. Environmentalists expect the numbers to keep climbing.
“It’s taken 40 years to get back where we were, but it’s a great success story in terms of conservation here in the East,” Watts said as he tagged the second female chick, one of two that had remained in the nest as the young male fled. “Our population in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Virginia, is self-sustaining now, in terms of the productivity.”
Watts said the birds got their name from what they do best: wandering. Peregrine means traveling, and once the Virginia chicks fly away they’re sometimes spotted in cities such as Boston or New York. Some go west. Others migrate for the winter as far as Panama or Colombia.
The bands “allow us to get all kinds of information that we weren’t allowed to get otherwise,” he said.
In addition to where they fly off to, the bands help researchers examine the birds’ survival rate as well as their relation to other falcons.
One pair of peregrine falcons lived on the James River for 18 years. The falcons were banded as chicks in Baltimore and were siblings, just one year apart. Together they produced more than 50 young and were the most productive pair ever recorded, “and they were full siblings,” he said.
Watts said one factor that has helped the peregrine resurgence is the birds’ adaptability to man-made structures.
He said about 30 percent of the population lives on towers that were built for them in an effort to restore the population. The rest live on other man-made structures, such as bridges, buildings and smokestacks — like the family that lives at Possum Point in Virginia.
After a little clawing, a few tiny pecks and a lot of noise, the bands were placed on both young falcons. But where in the world was that tiny male chick that escaped?
The male eyas was found two days later by plant workers.
“He had flown pretty far, and Dominion folks saw him on the ground, put a blanket on him and covered him up,” said Chuck Penn, a company spokesman.
The chick was taken to a wildlife center, where Watts met him.
He was banded, examined and taken to Shenandoah National Park. At-risk falcons are taken there and put into wooden boxes, also called hack boxes. He will be fed and taken care of until he is ready to spread his wings.
Then he’ll take off and fly.