As we enter the spring season, we can plan on several things in the northeast; our favorite ice climbs will delaminate and fade away, pot holes and mud riddled roads will shake our cars to pieces, an excess of maple syrup will appear on our breakfast tables and of course our rock climbing gear will be dusted off and prepped for that early season climbing excursion. With the welcomed arrival of warmer weather after a hideously cold winter, many of us are excited to explore our favorite crags and tick off that unfinished project from last fall. However we are not alone in our interest of returning to our beloved cliffs, as we are very much joined by our avian friend, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).
Returning from their southern wintering habitats, these crow sized adults with long pointed wings and a rounded tail, often return to their same annual nesting spots, along with their life mate, to reproduce and incubate their young. Mating season typically lasts from late March through May, but chick rearing can extend as far as late July. Nests are most commonly found on cliff edges, usually underneath overhangs, where females can create a scrape, or a shallow hollow in loose soil or vegetation in which to lay her eggs. It is during this time that the parents may be the most protective of their rearing habitat and the distinctive high pitched and prolonged, “kek-kek-kek”, which signifies danger, may be common to hear. While their diet primarily of other birds, peregrines are precariously located at the top of their complex food chain and signify important bio-indicators of their habitat, making the peregrine a natural barometer for the environmental health of the region.
With some of our cliffs occupied from April to July at a minimum, it’s been essentially taboo in the past to address the state of the peregrine population in a room full of climbers. Peregrines are territorial during breeding season and may require more than 1km (.62m) between nest sites to ensure food security. In an effort to balance the spatial demands of the peregrines with the recreational demand of outdoor enthusiasts, closures imparted by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife and state biologists, look to quarantine a balance of habitat to preserve this species while also supporting the outdoor recreation culture. As is often the debate, is conservation the answer or do human priorities come first?
As a climber, I find myself often impatient and intolerant of the spatial and temporal demands of this vulnerable species. However I’ve come to reflect on the history of this resilient creature and find that humans are highly capable of impairing its success. After the implementation of DDT and other noxious pesticides in the 1940’s, the peregrine population suffered a significant decline. Bio-accumulation of the DDT toxin impaired the thickness of peregrine egg shells, creating a calcium inefficiency which typically resulted in the failure of the shells during incubation. The decline of the birds was dramatic and the last wild adult in the East was observed in Vermont in the 1970’s. During that same year peregrines became listed as a federal protected species under the Endangered Species Act.
Since that time DDT and other highly persistent and noxious pesticides have been outlawed while stringent protections and release programs have been installed to regenerate the population in the Eastern United States. The peregrine has successfully been reestablished in the East and removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species in 1999 as well as the Vermont state list of endangered species in 2005. Of the 38 Vermont nesting sites monitored in 2013, 21 mating pairs produced a total of over 50 fledgling chicks. While this does not mark a record for nesting pairs or fledglings hatched, the rate of growth amongst the species does show a stable increase since peregrines were released in the state in 1984. Thus the species is considered recovered; yet their success is dependent on their monitoring, nest site protection and the efficiency in public education and protection. As with most conservational issues, the importance of public support with this issue couldn’t be any higher.
In the light of todays climbing community, I couldn’t be anymore inspired. While the stigma of the difficult to manage peregrine persists, community support continues to grow. The climbing community should take pride in the successful rehabilitation of the peregrine population as its restoration is in part due to the watchful eye and diligent protection by the climbing community. I can honestly be hopeful for this species and others like it, because I know that our climbing community has chosen to place conservation issues in front of their climbing projects, and in the large part, patience has outlasted intolerance. As we enter another rearing season I look forward to exploring new and different climbing terrain, while our avian friends employ our local hotspots, and returning to my fall projects with the delightful knowledge that the outstanding climbing community, that I like to consider myself apart of, has again made a difference in the ecological balance of our habitat. Thanks belongs to all of you climbers that provide the peregrines with their necessary space this hatching season and I look forward to exploring new territories with all of you in the meantime.
Featured in 2014 Winter/Spring Issue of the Vermont Crag Rag, A climbing resource access group newsletter.