First successful breeding of Peregrine Falcons on non-man-made structures in Eastern Massachusetts since their reintroduction.

By Craig Jackson

The story of the successful reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) into the Northeast United States, including Massachusetts, has been well documented. Seeing a Peregrine flying by in migration is no longer a rare event, and many observers have also been treated to the sight of Peregrines flying down from lofty perches at the tops of buildings and striking their prey. Young Peregrines have been banded at their nests on buildings in cities, and have been followed as they choose new nest sites in other buildings. In 2002, the first pair of Peregrines to successfully breed on natural cliffs in Western Massachusetts was documented in Irving, MA. Subsequently two other sites in Massachusetts (Mt. Sugarloaf in 2003 and Mt. Tom in 2007) had cliff-nesting Peregrines.[1] However, until this year, 2008, this had not been documented in Eastern Massachusetts. This article is a brief summary of my discovery of a cliff nesting pair of Peregrines in an active quarry, including several of the most exciting observations.[2]

In 2007, the first year of the second Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, I volunteered to be the primary censuser of the block, Boston North-10 (BN-10), and the adjacent block, Boston North-11 (BN-11). On May 27, 2007 I went to Mount Hood Memorial Park to look for breeding birds in BN-11. I had already noted some birds (confirming several easy ones for BN-11), as walking through the golf course I made my way to Mt. Hood Memorial Tower. Having looked at the tower while fall hawkwatching on Pinnacle Rock, I was curious to see what views it gave. When I got to the top, I saw that to the east, although partially obscured by high trees, the higher ledges of a quarry were visible. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that perhaps Turkey Vultures (often seen in both BN-10 and BN-11) might be nesting on the cliffs, and that finding a nesting pair would be quite a coup! Accordingly, I carefully scanned the part of the quarry I could see for raptors, particularly Turkey Vultures.

What I found was indeed a coup — not the one I had looked for but an even better one! As I scanned the ledges through my binoculars, I saw what looked like an adult Peregrine Falcon. Careful focusing confirmed the observation. However, it wasn’t until I saw a second bird circle high above the quarry and then fly off, that I began to wonder if this was indeed a nesting pair. For the next 75 minutes (9:15-10:30 AM), I watched the remaining bird but it did not move from the ledge it was on. I wondered if the bird was standing next to a nest on the ledge, but from that distance could not be sure. I would have to return.

I came back on June 2, 2007. Below the Mt. Hood tower I found a hole in the fence to overlook the quarry. From there I observed the other side of the quarry from 8:30 – 11:55 AM. My notes from that day indicate I observed two Peregrines after first hearing a shrieking call. The larger one or female (that seemed to have a darker hood) was sitting on a fairly large ledge that depressed into the cliff face, forming a somewhat circular space about 10 feet in diameter. At the back of the ledge there is a tall sapling and a fair amount of vegetation as well. This ledge was about halfway up the rock wall on the eastern side of the quarry.

[The large circular ledge/depression in the cliff where I observed the birds that day is the same ledge on which Peregrines (presumably the same pair) successfully laid their eggs, and hatched and reared two young Peregrines this past year (2008). I therefore assume that the female I observed on June 2, 2007 on that same ledge was also on a nest, albeit one that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Suspecting that these Peregrines were nesting, I emailed Tom French of Mass Fish and Wildlife. Tom informed David and Ursula Goodine about the birds, since they had been helpful in keeping tabs on several other pairs. David talked to the manager of the quarry on June 24, and we were given permission the first year (2007) to enter the quarry (provided we wore hard hats and safety vests). However, in 2008, citing safety concerns that permission was denied, and they did not even allow Tom French to band the fledgling chicks. Accordingly, subsequent observations in 2007 were made from inside the quarry, while all 2008 observations were made from outside the quarry (and at much greater distance).

Although I recorded more than 10 hours of observation of this pair in 2007, much of it observing one bird, which was presumably sitting on a nest, the bird ultimately left the “nest ledge.” We surmised that the birds had nested but the nest had been unsuccessful. The most interesting observation of the pair that year, however, was not made by me but by the Goodines, who both noted a band on one of the birds, the presumed male, and were able to read it. Tom French subsequently forwarded an e-mail to us that informed us that our “male” was indeed a female! The following are several excerpts from that e-mail (emphasis in original):

The band sequence A-Z over 3 (black over green) were issued to me except these were designated as female bands; not male. I have a U over 3 band placed on a peregrine female at a site in Baltimore, Maryland in 2005. Her band number is 1687-16801.
The rest of this article is a summation of some of my observations in 2008. Most are from a lookout (“my lookout”) located toward the west of the quarry from which only part of the eastern side of the quarry could be observed. This lookout is on the Mt Hood park side of the fence bordering the quarry. It is high enough that I could easily see the nest ledge, and almost opposite the ledge so I could see virtually the whole ledge. I would estimate the distance across to the quarry wall is about 250 yards and down to the ledge maybe another 25 yards. Later in the year, an even more distant observation site (about 350 yards) [the “Goodine lookout”] was found on the northern side of the quarry. Although farther, from this site it was possible to see both the east and west side of the quarry.

April 16, 2008 — I went to check on the Peregrines. I noted one bird sitting on a tree above the ledge and another on the ledge itself. The ledge looks much different now because there is no vegetation. It forms almost a semicircle in shape, and from the back of the wall to the edge is probably at least 10 feet. Thus, there is plenty of room for a chick/s to exercise and practice flapping. The bird is sitting (on a nest?) near the back wall in the center of the semicircle. The “nest” is protected by walls on the south, east, and north and open only to the west. In addition there seems to be a slight overhang to protect the nest. When the vegetation grows back it will again be pretty much hidden.

April 27, 2008 – First observation of eggs — After the bird on the ledge flew off I trained my scope on the ledge and noticed there were at least 2 and possibly 3 eggs in a constructed shallow nest. The eggs appeared at great distance to be light brown and speckled. (Possibly white with brown speckles).

May 16, 2008 – First observation of chicks — Met Tom French and David and Ursula and took them to my lookout on the Peregrine nest. After noticing a bird on the nest, we noted it shifting around and observed two fluffy white objects under the bird. After getting a brief glimpse of these chicks, they were later covered by the adult bird. Tom estimated that they were probably about 5 days old.

May 21, 2008 – First feeding observed — The large female flew up onto the nest ledge with food in its talons. The female fed the chicks breaking up pieces, as the chicks actively fed. It appeared that there were only two chicks being fed, although the adult may have been blocking my view of another bird.

June 21, 2008 – Juveniles away from nest — Both young birds were away from the nest today and standing in the northern corner of the ledge. One bird is flapping its wings and moving around. The wings of both appear to be fully feathered and both have streaked reddish breasts.

June 25, 2008 – First flights?? – Before setting up my scope I noticed a bird fly off the ledge, around an outcrop and then onto an adjoining ledge. I also at the same time noticed another bird fly/hop down to the ledge a bit toward its edge. When I had set up my scope I realized that the two birds I had seen flying were the two juvenile Peregrines. Apparently, the first bird had merely flown “around the corner” so the two birds were now on different ledges on either side of a rock outcrop.

A while later an adult flew down to the second bird and laid food down in front of it. When the juvenile began to peck at the food, the adult female grabbed the other end of the food in her mouth. I thought that she was going to help tear the food up]. Instead, however, she grabbed the food and flew off with it. Was she trying to entice him to fly?

The larger juvenile on the other ledge (the female) flapped and clawed its way 4-5 feet up the dividing rock outcrop. Sometime later the juvenile male did the same thing so that now the two juveniles were on the outcrop, with the female slightly higher. When both juveniles had climbed up the outcrop, the adult male flew down to the nest ledge where it left some food. The juvenile male then flew back down to the nest ledge [I believe this was the first time the juvenile male had flown].

June 29, 2008 – First extended flights observed – Today I went to the Goodine overlook and was soon joined by the Goodines. After following flying adults Ursula soon spots one of the juveniles and I spot the other. What is surprising is that they are both on a ledge on the west side of the quarry. (The nest ledge is on the east side, which means they had flown across the quarry). Both birds begin doing some wing flapping. Sometime later, after coaxing from the parents, one of the juveniles after significant wing flapping flew off the west ledge accompanied by the adult female. They both flew back to the east side of the quarry where they went behind some rocks. Subsequently, the other juvenile also took flight back across the quarry.

Author’s note: This year, 2009, the Saugus Peregrines bred on a different ledge and had four chicks. As of this writing the four juveniles are almost ready to begin their first fights.

[1] Personal communication with Tom French
[2] Some of the observations were also made by David and Ursula Goodine, who helped me to keep track of the activities of this pair. I have tried, as best I can, to indicate when they made the observations.