Effort helps to ensure falcon fledglings survival

Boaters in the water and pedestrians with binoculars and spotting scopes kept their eyes trained at the Carl E. Stolz Memorial Bridge over the July 4 weekend, waiting for two peregrine falcon fledglings to make their first flight.

Called the Fledge Watch by participants, the vigil started when the chicks exhibited fledging behavior in the last week in June in their nest under the Market Street Bridge.

After watching, waiting and hoping, falcon watchers got news on July 8 that the male chick had made its first flight.

Two days later, the female decided it was her time and took to the air, too.

Two of the many people involved in Fledge Watch were Joe Yoder, a member of the Lycoming Audubon Society and an avid birder, and his friend, Meredith Lombard, a Lancaster County birder who monitors an active falcon nest there. They virtually were out watching the whole time.

“Many others joined the effort, including Lycoming Audubon Society members, other birders and Dan Brauning and Game Commission staff,” Yoder said. “The list is too long to mention, but Jean Klotz, of South Williamsport, spent a great deal of time observing during that period and the following week, when both chicks fledged.”

The Falcon Watch was a very important effort made by so many.

When chicks fledge from bridges, such as the one on Market Street, they face so many dangers. In this instance, the fast-flowing West Branch of the Susquehanna River was one of them.

Yoder said watchers were looking at a worst-case scenario, where the fledglings could end up in the water. Days before their anticipated flight, rain fell in buckets all through the region.

The river rose fast and became very murky and swift.

“Meredith always had a kayak at the ready, though, initially, there were concerns about the high water levels and strong currents,” Yoder said.

Gary Metzger spearheaded a group of power boaters, kayakers and canoers, Yoder said. Their mission was to take to the water and rescue any falcon that might fall into the water.

No birds needed to be rescued from the river.

Sadly, it was not the river but a modern amenity that would be the demise of the female, who reportedly was electrocuted on a power pole behind the South Williamsport watch site.

Besides watchers on the water, the watch also continued on the land in recent weeks, with dedicated volunteers enduring rain showers and heat. Yoder said a beach umbrella and ice deliveries by Bill Gehorn aided watchers.

The adult birds let those who walked on the River Walk know there was a nest nearby.

“We also had an issue with the adult female strafing people with big dogs, so warning signs were posted,” Yoder said.

Then came the Fourth of July fireworks celebration, which Yoder said was “another matter entirely.”

People from the River Walk asked how the birds would cope with such noise and lights.

“They’ll probably just treat it as though it’s a bad thunderstorm,” Yoder said watch members answered.

“The truth is, none of us knew what would happen, though there was virtually nothing we could do about it anyway,” he added. “The next morning, scores of people came by and wanted to know if the chicks were OK. They were all relieved to hear the good news.”

The people using the River Walk became very interested in the Fledge Watch.

“We were amazed at the interest and concern expressed by so many people – birders and non-birders alike. I’d been monitoring the nest for months, and I would get the occasional, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ But it wasn’t until the fledge watch began in earnest, and the front-page newspaper article was published, that people began stopping by in droves,” Yoder said.

Once people learned what the group was doing there with their binoculars and spotting scopes, Yoder said they offered nothing but support and encouragement.

“Even those who seemed skeptical at first were completely won over when we offered views of the chicks or adults in our spotting scopes. Police, municipal officials, bikers, walkers – everyone who stopped by to watch took ownership of the birds. It was a marvelous opportunity to educate people about this endangered raptor species,” Yoder said.

The South Williamsport borough officials and police officers helped out by checking on the fledge watchers and falcons regularly. The police department even posted information on its Facebook page.

Borough Manager Mike Miller checked in each day and hit the water in his kayak several times after work and on the weekend to help with the boat patrol, Yoder said.

“We were grateful for their help,” he said.

Once the birds have honed their flight skills, a plunge to the river becomes less likely, Yoder said.

Still, danger is part of the falcons’ life cycle.

“Particularly, on the bridge in this case, (there’s) power lines and transformers, cables and wires, equipment on building roofs, building windows,” he said.

It is hoped that in two years or more, more falcons will be nesting and raising young that can survive in the area.

“But it’s just as likely we will never learn what happens to them. Individual peregrines have distinct traits and personalities. You can’t help but get emotionally invested in these birds when you observe them as much as we do,” Yoder said, days before the young female died. “I haven’t named them for that very reason, but I’m kidding myself to think I won’t be upset if something bad happens to them.”