A Long-Awaited Homecoming for Peregrine Falcons in the Finger Lakes – Part 2 of 2

04/27/2022
story and photos by Andy Johnson

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of Living Bird, the membership magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Two decades into the 21st century, however, the trailhead photograph at Taughannock Falls State Park (as seen on page 38 of the March/April 2022 edition of Life in the Finger Lakes magazine) still showed a relic of the past. But as I neared the falls on that afternoon walk in March 2020, I heard the same raking call that had first halted Arthur Allen here in 1909. It seemed an ancestral echo, carried across the lost decades, cutting through the din of water and reflecting off the gorge walls. I turned to see two peregrine falcons flying side by side, directly overhead, racing upstream. The male landed on the cliff and nearly vanished, a mere speck on the rock face. The female sped on, past the falls and out of sight.

It had been over a century since Arthur Allen chanced upon the same sight, nearly 75 years since Taughannock was last adorned by peregrine falcons in residence. And it had been exactly 50 years since The Peregrine Fund had begun its bold work to replenish the empty territories of North America with a new line of aerial monarchs.

Throughout that spring, I made frequent morning visits to Taughannock. On April 5, scanning the countless ledges and shadows from across the gorge, I finally caught sight of the female peregrine, hunkered low on a flat, sandy ledge near the top of the opposite cliff. She was incubating. She had chosen this ledge at Taughannock and found a mate to join her.

For me, a multimedia producer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the potential to document peregrines rearing their young at Taughannock – so close to my own home, when other assignments were canceled by COVID lockdowns – was a small miracle. My job quickly pivoted to filming this historic nesting season. The peregrine falcon is still listed by the state of New York as an endangered species (this pair joined the growing ranks of more than 50 nesting pairs across the state), so we collaborated closely with biologists from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Parks to secure permits and plan an unobtrusive – and secretive – approach to filming. Although peregrines are notoriously aggressive near their nests (unwilling to tolerate visitors, but by the same token, unlikely to abandon in the case of intrusions), my first priority was ensuring this nest would not be disturbed.

I walked the rim trail on the far side of the gorge with park biologists to find a clear vantage point, without trampling any rare or sensitive plant species. Options were few on such a steep slope, but eventually we settled on a small outcrop atop the precipice, opposite the falcon’s nest. It was accessible by a sliding scramble, with me harnessed into safety lines lashed around a sturdy hemlock. I gained new appreciation for Arthur Allen’s descriptions of navigating a treacherous slope for a hard-earned and intimate view of a peregrine nest a century earlier.

“One may clamber down the steep slope ending in the precipice, and make his way to the edge of the cliff,” wrote Allen. “Ten feet down the face of the cliff, an old gnarled cedar still clings with its tenacious roots…letting oneself down a rope to this swaying tree, an even better view can be secured. One occasionally came to his senses with a start, after reaching far out with the camera and temporarily forgetting his position astraddle the branch.”

Instead, we had a clear view with comfortable standing room, albeit nearly 500 feet from the nest. In those early morning hours of watching, the female tended more toward incubation duty, while her smaller mate tended to preen and sun himself on exposed snags partway down the cliff. Once in a while he seemed to suddenly have recollections of other duties, and would set off on stiff wings to make forays across the forest edges, farm fields, and lakeshores of their vast hunting range.

I stood holding my breath ready to film as the male returned with the tell-tale deep wingbeats of a prey-carrying flight. I glimpsed a large flash of yellow tucked beneath him, and immediately recalled a Fuertes painting of a falcon pinning a meadowlark against the shale ledge, its bright yellow breast turned to face the sky over Cayuga Lake. And now it seemed these very characters were converging again into a living diorama.

Or at least, that’s what I anticipated. The male peregrine wasn’t so swayed by any reverence for Fuertes and thought it better to take the meadowlark farther up the gorge and around the next bend to enjoy the meal in solitude. He returned empty-taloned about 10 minutes later to preen. The female, still incubating, glared – albeit with the same severe expression she always wore.

In the passing weeks, though, the male did share enough of his meals, and the female took her own breaks from incubation to preen and hunt, so that one day I arrived to a different view. In place of the rusty speckled arcs of eggs, I could just make out a compact mass of downy white. With great effort, three little bespectacled cotton balls rose briefly from the pile of down.

Through my spotting scope, that image seemed to distill a winding history into a single, concentrated moment. The three new lives, soft and bright white, were conspicuous and vulnerable against the hard shale cliff, resting just a few precarious inches from the precipice. Simply by hatching, by breaking out of strong, fully calcified eggshells, they had earned a chance to live. In their first hours of life, and in spite of myriad gauntlets yet to clear, they were pioneers and rightful inheritors of a new world, finally restored.

Five weeks later, the three growing falcons were absorbed in curiosity. While they exercised their wings or rested in the shade, they drank in the sights and sounds of their home gorge, studied the flight patterns of rough-winged swallows and blue jays below them, and watched each other for cues, missteps, and breakthroughs. When one hopped to a new ledge, their world expanded together. The others were rapt, tilting and bobbing their heads to take full measure of the new distances now within reach.

On June 9, 2020, the first of the young falcons leapt from the ledge, taking unsteady but successful flight across the gorge and alighting back on the cliff wall below the nest. The others hesitantly followed suit later that day. After fledging, the young would return to the nest ledge to roost at night, hunkering back into their familiar sanctuary after long days of exploration and learning. The venturing young birds soon discovered a dead hemlock trunk that reached out almost horizontally into the gorge, affording an expansive view from which to rest and preen.

As luck would have it, this newfound real estate was on my side of the gorge, jutting out just below my vantage point. As one of the fledglings took flight from the nest ledge, I watched it glide below eye-level straight toward me, crossing the creek far below, and swooping up to land on the near snag, backlit and radiant. The adults’ slaty plumage was dusty and worn by this point in the season, but the juvenile seen up close sported buff-colored banding and scalloping on its fresh new feathers, and even a little tuft of down still on its head. It turned on the perch, adjusting its clumsy-taloned grasp and beating its wings to regain tentative balance. While the young bird was still finding its footing, it was every inch a peregrine falcon.

By August, the gorge was quiet once again. The falcon family had departed on migration, streaks of white guano beneath the empty ledge the only sign left of their return. Months later, deep in the winter of 2021 and well before the first signs of a new spring, two svelte adult peregrines returned to the gorge and began their rituals anew, flying in unison, reorienting to the sensation of shale underfoot, and undertaking the serious work of growing their numbers, a few hard-shelled eggs at a time.

As of this printing in late summer 2021, Taughannock’s wild peregrine falcons have embarked on their next half-century with a resounding affirmation of past progress. This year they successfully fledged another four young.

To watch young falcons emerge from the mouth of Taughannock two years in a row, toward new gorges yet to be found, was thanks to a far-reaching and defiant vision. The decades-long recovery – a bold experiment to reel a species back from the brink of extinction with our own hands – was characterized by the uncompromising tenacity of a few people who had faith in the impossible, and a commitment to ends that might not be realized in the span of a human lifetime.

In February of 2019, at age 91, Dr. Tom Cade passed away, perhaps in the same moment that wild peregrine falcons first canvassed Taughannock gorge for nesting. He certainly would have loved to see peregrine falcons here in Taughannock, further culmination of a life’s work – a new line of peregrines completing a homecoming of their own accord, and a fully fledged testament to the long span of tireless work poured into recovering their forebears.

Andy Johnson, Cornell ‘14, is a producer in the Center for Conservation Media at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Read Part 1 in the March/April 2022 issue!

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