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News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 13, 2012
Audubon Society talk reports Maine peregrines “back from the brink”

by Gigi DeJoy

Driving past the old Verona Bridge, it is an almost common sight to see a peregrine falcon perched on top or soaring above Route 1. One can hope for a similar sighting around Acadia National Park, parts of Deer Isle, and now even some urban areas like Portland.

But just 30 years ago, there was not a peregrine to be seen in all of Maine. The massive reintroduction program that brought this species back to our state was the topic of the August 17 talk at the Blue Hill Library given by Charlie Todd, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The vast majority of the 35 or so attendants of the evening talk were members of the Maine Audubon Society, which has around 430 members in its Downeast chapter alone. The talk began much like an Audubon meeting, with friends sharing recent bird-related experiences or facts and advice about bird ecology in the current season. There were brownies and lemonade to snack on, as well as pamphlets and handouts about the society for nonmembers attending to consider.

Todd began his speech with some basic facts about falcons. He said there are three different types of falcon in Maine: the merlin, the American kestrel and the peregrine. The peregrine falcon is a bird of prey that can kill other big birds such as gulls. They like to nest under overhangs on cliff ledges above water, but will sometimes borrow other birds’ nests as well; the Verona Bridge pair uses an eagle’s nest. Recently, and especially in the south, some peregrines have been forced to take up residence in cities on tall building tops or other structures. “They can use fairly small size ledges… they’re not too picky about their setting,” said Todd.

Todd told the audience that the peregrine was listed as a nationally endangered species in 1970. It was taken off in 1999 due to its success in the west, in a move that did not reflect the species’ stability in New England. The species is still considered endangered in Maine, since there are only 25 nesting pairs in the state. This number may seem low, and the population is indeed still fragile, but compared to its recent de facto extinction in the area, it is quite a comeback.

The peregrine was reintroduced in Maine through a highly complex and extended process. Breeding birds were brought in from distant places such as New Zealand and Spain, and their offspring were bred in a form of captivity that made it impossible for them to bond to the people raising them. They were kept very far from humans, and their food was sent to them through a long chute that connected their habitat and the project’s building.

Between 1984 and 1997, over 100 of these young birds were released at former peregrine nesting sites. Slowly, some of these birds began to reoccupy the old nests and reproduce on their own. Todd described the birds fondly, “a peregrine does not fool around. They’re all like, this is it, this is the moment, make or break.” And they made it.

A current issue facing the peregrine, Todd said, is the impending demolition of the old Verona Bridge. Already that nesting spot is not ideal; young birds who are just learning how to fly often fall off into the water. But if moved to the nearby road cut-out—a cliff that could potentially be a good match for the peregrine’s ideal habitat—then the young birds face a fall onto the busy road instead of the river. The problem is daunting, but Todd was optimistic. “If they have to leave the area, I’ll be shocked,” he said.

Todd’s talk also addressed the recovering bald eagle population in Maine, about which he was similarly positive. The bald eagle was endangered in 1978, but now Todd said he guessed the Maine population is approaching 800 birds. “We’re finding around 30 new nests every year,” he said.

Another eagle he talked about, the golden eagle, is not a success story. Though Maine was the last northeastern state to have the bird, they are now gone from the area. In America, the golden eagle remains only in the west, and is trending downward even there. From a worldwide perspective, however, the golden eagle’s situation is not quite so dire. Some still nest in parts of Canada, such as Quebec, and since they are roaming birds, Todd said that the possibility of spotting one in Maine did exist, if only slightly.