(Alpine Club of Canada sections and their members work in a variety of capacities in all aspects of their community, not just in the outdoor recreation scene. Their dedication to helping local initiatives in their own time showcases their love of the natural world that surrounds them. Frank Pianka and the Thunder Bay Section’s efforts for Project Peregrine is a perfect example of the dedication our members show beyond everyday recreation. As a retired High School teacher, Frank generously donates his time to the ACC and Thunder Bay Field Naturalists: Project Peregrine – Ed)
Handle with care: delicate material
There’s nothing cozy about a peregrine falcon’s “nest”. These fiercely territorial fighter-jets of the sky will claim a sheer cliff, generally near a large body of water, and here, on a bare ledge high above the dangers faced by ground dwellers, lay their eggs (up to four) and tutor their young in the art of becoming the world’s fastest raptor. They may have only a patch or two of vegetation for shelter from the hot sun, the pelting rain or the probing eyes of a biologist intent on affixing identification bands to their legs or drawing a blood sample for analysis.
Locating a nest and checking it out
Knowing where the chicks are is the starting point for the team of volunteers that work on Project Peregrine each summer. In late June, when the chicks are about three weeks old, the team works on the first challenge, getting to a point directly above the “nest”. This could involve following GPS coordinates while bush-whacking, scrambling up steep slopes using a rope, or side-stepping patches of poison ivy while carrying all the gear needed for the climber to get down to the birds—and back up. The adult falcons may help the team locate the right position by sounding the alarm – a piercing screech that clearly means “stay away!”
Volunteers and professionals working together
Once positioned above the nest site, ropes are rigged so a climber can descend (rappel) to the chicks and carefully put them into a specially designed bird box, ready to be hauled up for the biologists. On top of the cliff, the chicks are sexed, aged and given their new identification bands. Feather samples are taken, and, in a few cases, blood samples are drawn by toxicology experts. These specialists in poison are studying the movement of PBDE*, a ubiquitous chemical used as a flame retardant in the manufacture of just about every consumer product, through the food chain. Meanwhile, the lone climber is still on the ledge enjoying the view and picking up prey remains so the chicks’ diets can be assessed. Body parts of crows, gulls and especially pigeons litter the white-washed ledge and attract clouds of flies. It’s no wonder the chicks want to leave this mess as soon as possible, about five weeks after hatching, and take to the sky.
Success through action
The banded chicks are gently returned to their ledge nest and the climber begins the arduous ascent (Jumar) back up the rope. Some ascents are short and easy while others may involve a fifty-metre climb, straight up the rope, with only space below and everyone else above, waiting for you. It’s exhilarating work for the banding team and thrilling for anyone lucky enough to tag along on a trip, but for the technical crew, it’s no time to relax. The hazards are constantly being monitored by the experienced climbers on the team who rig to minimize the risks for everyone involved. The team has banded over five hundred peregrine falcon chicks in Northern Ontario and is looking forward to its twenty-first season this summer.
Project Peregrine is a collaborative, entirely volunteer effort of The Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, The Alpine Club of Canada, Thunder Bay Section, and Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism.
*PBDE, or polybrominated diphenyl ether is a flame retardant used in the manufacture of many household products, like furniture, fabrics and electronics. In Canada there is concern that PBDEs are having a harmful effect on humans and the environment, while in Europe, forms of PBDE have been banned since 2004 following a Swedish study that found related chemicals in human breast milk and other tissues.
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If you would like to know more about the ACC and Project Peregrine, check out the links below.
The Alpine Club of Canada has a lot of different opportunities throughout Canada. Join the ACC today and check out opportunities at our local sections to have some fun and make a difference.