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I decided to post this because of some of us that enjoy Raptors....

Raptor camera: Peregrine cam gives scientists a clue what goes on in falcons' nests

By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian
Photographed by TOM BAUER of the Missoulian

High above Flathead Lake near Bigfork recently, Byron Crow uses his laptop computer to access a remote video camera trained on a peregrine falcon aerie in the rugged cliffs below. Crow installed the camera, and the accompanying 1,700 pounds of electronic equipment, to capture unprecedented round-the-clock video of a pair of falcons raising their chicks in the wild.

Birds' aerie on rocky ledge near Bigfork centerpiece of study

BIGFORK - The nighttime janitor moved quickly through the dark, cleaning the floor of bright bones and bits of meat, sweeping clear the feathers, cagey, careful, always wary.

His clients, he knew, were hungry, not to be trusted. So he scurried faster, packing out the trash beneath those hard, sharp eyes.

Yet they did not eat him.

“It's not that they aren't hungry,” said Byron Crow. “It's just that they seem to have an understanding. Normally, he'd be considered a meal.”

He's a packrat, and his after-hours custodial work only one of the remarkable surprises captured by the tiny video cameras Crow has hidden in a rocky falcon aerie.

“There's so much we don't know about falcons that pretty much everything is a surprise,” the independent biologist said. “Every discovery brings up another question.”

Like why don't they eat the rat, and where is mom flying off to in the middle of the night?

“Who knows,” Crow said. “No one's ever done this before, with cameras in a wild nest.”

There are, to be sure, lots of falcon cams, mostly bolted to the sides of high-rise buildings and mostly watching city falcons eat pigeons. Peregrine falcons, for all their wild mystery, seem not to mind raising chicks in the urban jungle.

And those buildings come convenient with all the amenities human voyeurs could want - easy access, electricity, a place to mount the camera. Not so in this aerie south of Bigfork, high on a rocky cliff, far, far off the grid.

“No one's tried to watch peregrine nests in the wild,” Crow says, breath coming short as he scales stony heights through cool morning air. “We're pretty much the only ones doing this sort of thing.”

And as you climb, you imagine him packing 1,700 pounds of electronics up this cliff, and you begin to suspect why that might be.

Wild falcon aeries are terrifically hard to get to, unless you happen to be a falcon. The birds are nature's sport cars, screeching like rubber on pavement as they wheel sharp turns above slopes of stone scree.

Here, the world does as it pleases, and falcons rule the sky.

“Their only real predators are golden eagles,” Crow said, and the occasional great-horned owl. One day, while working for the Montana Peregrine Institute, he watched a pair of falcons hammer an eagle right off his roost, driving him hard from this same aerie. “It was mayhem. The eagles don't fly this canyon anymore. The falcons totally own the place.”

Peregrine falcons stand about 16 inches tall, sleek, streamlined and cobalt blue, edged in grey. They are the color of the stone they call home, the speed of the wind they ride.

Sometimes called “duck hawks,” peregrines are considered the fastest animal in the world. Although the white-throated needletail swift wings faster in level flight, the peregrine can top 200 mph when diving from on high.

Science calls that tremendous plunge the “stoop,” and everything about it has been measured and metered and precisely parsed, calculated, computed and pinned down neatly.

Likewise, the wild birds themselves have been studied and scrutinized, not least because peregrine falcons were long cosseted by federal protections. Pesticides, sprayed during the middle part of the 20th century, worked up the food chain, built up in the birds' fatty tissue, resulting finally in eggshells with far less calcium, flimsy and fragile things that just didn't make it.

In some corners of the world, peregrine populations were wiped out. In 1980, Crow said, not a single wild aerie was known west of the Mississippi. But environmental rules saved the species here, and in 1999 the federal protections were lifted.

“They're making it now,” he said. “But the thing is, despite all those years of study and monitoring, we still really don't know much about their lives in the wild - what they eat, how they live.”

How they incubate, how the family cooperates to raise the chicks.

Enter his aerie cams.

Science knows the “wandering falcon” migrates, generally following the water fowl it loves to eat. Science knows the females are considerably larger than the males, knows they rely on updrafts of warm air to gain the altitude needed for the stoop, knows they hit the wings of prey midair, slicing through like fighter pilots.

(In fact, the guys who build fighter jets borrowed biology from the peregrine, mimicking baffles in the bird's nostrils which are thought to slow wind velocity, thus enabling the falcon to breathe at high speeds.)

Science knows wild peregrines prefer to eat ducks, but won't turn their beaks up when presented a small mammal, such as a packrat. Usually. Science knows they mate for life, courting amid an acrobatic aerial ballet. Males pass food on to their mates in midair, the female flying upside down to receive a meal from the male's talons.

But as for what we know about life in a wild nest, well, “that wouldn't fill a chapter in a book about birds,” Crow said.

He'd been thinking about that, watching this pair return year after year to the same remote cliff band, wondering how to get close enough to really know the birds. Problem was, how to learn about wild falcons without getting too close and spooking them?

Obviously, he'd need remote tools. But how would he get the equipment up there? And what kind of equipment would he need, exactly? And which tiny cave would the birds choose when they returned in the spring?

To answer that last question first, Crow pretty much guessed. He picked a ledge they'd used before, the rock below stained white with proof, “and then prayed that the birds would use that one again this year.”

As to how he'd get the equipment up there, well, that was just a matter of drudgery and sweat equity.

The sort of equipment he'd need posed a far greater problem. No one had done this before, as he said, and so the tools didn't exactly exist.

“I spent six years planning this project,” Crow said. “When I told the engineers and the computer guys what I wanted, they just laughed. Then they built it.”

Crow climbs through stands of long-needle pine, up into rocky tops, through clarkia and yarrow and arrowleaf, through tiny meadows of long-plumed avens and penstemon, to a big Tupperware box. He calls it the “magic box.”

“Don't ask me how it works. All I know is that when I told the engineers what I needed, this is what they gave me.” He laughs. Frowns. Shrugs. “All I know is it works.”

The box, set snug to two shining solar panels, is filled with computer hardware and electronics and big batteries, a pair of long cables spidering out of it and down over the cliff. Crow sits down on warm limestone, plugs his laptop into the magic box, pulls a big baby-blue blanket over his head and immediately begins to curse the software.

Quiet. He's birdwatching.

Finally, a pair of images split the screen, shaded from sun's glare beneath that blue blanky, and there are four tiny peregrine chicks, beaks up, screeching for food.

“This is what we came for,” comes the voice from beneath the blanket.

This will show him what they eat (surely not the pigeons of the urban falcon-cam), how much they eat, when they eat, who eats first, who brings the eats. This will show him sibling rivalries, parental favorites, the stuff of survival.

Every minute of every day, and all night, too, since April 7 the digital cameras have rolled. Crow stays away, except to come up once a month and swap out a new hard drive, memory for all these minutes.

“Now that everything's in place, I really can't touch it for six months or I'll disturb the birds,” he said.

In the past 12 years, biologists know this aerie has produced 28 youngsters. Now they know the first of the 2007 flock hatched May 16, the last on May 23, an interesting bit of trivia because it's earlier than expected.

It's one of many new answers begging a question.

Sometimes, Crow sits here, well out of sight of the aerie, and he watches the footage live. Sometimes, he sits at home, poring over hours of recorded activity.

Previously, he sat on yonder rock, across the deep valley, and swatted mosquitoes as he watched the birds from afar.

Journal entry, 11:35 a.m.: Female bird left.

Journal entry, 1:15 p.m.: Female bird returned.

Journal entry, 2:10 p.m.: Female bird left again.

“Tedium” is the word he uses.

But now all those comings and goings are beginning to make sense, and a narrative is emerging about what's really going on here.

“But we still don't get it all,” he said. “With 28 young in 12 years, this cliff should be full of falcons.”

It is not. Why? Where do they go? Why don't they all survive?

Crow tucks back under his blanket. Perhaps the answer is there.

Far below, a heavy morning fog clings to Flathead Lake, blurring water into sky, and a nearly full moon hangs gravid against bright blue above.

“I love Montana in the summer,” Crow cries out, perched high here between worlds. His falcons are gone now, perhaps to the water in search of ducks, perhaps to the warming sky, preparing for a stoop.

Then, a piercing shriek splits open the air, slices clean through morning.

“It's the female,” Crow whispers. He pulls field glasses to his eyes and begins scanning rock. “She's begging for food. The male must be out hunting and flying.”

He spots her, there on a stone perch, perfectly blended with her world, perfectly peregrine.

She lifts, wheels around, cries out again, then is lost to the airy depths of sky wilderness.

And Crow does not wait her return. He doesn't have to. Instead, he's already back on down the trail, content to leave her be, because he knows when he climbs back up next month the hard drive will be full of every moment he's missed, day and night in this busy aerie.

“It's amazing,” Crow said of the footage. “Every time I open a computer file it's a surprise.”

A surprise like that packrat janitor, who seems a harried and comic character until he's finally fit neatly into the narrative.

“The falcons can't have food left over in the nest,” Crow explains, “because that would attract predators to the chicks. We never knew how they dealt with that. We never even thought about it, actually. So here's this cooperative relationship that's totally new to us.”

And for Crow, that alone made the magic box worth its weight, even if he did have to pack it up here pound by pound.

“What we have here is a whole new window on the world,” Crow said. “Now, the real work begins - sitting down and looking through that window, and going through all the hours of data.”

He stops, smiles, and you just know there's nothing he'd rather be doing.

“It's all in there,” Crow said, pointing at his magic box. “The hard part will be figuring out what it all means.”

2,896 Posts
great story, yea no troulbe for them to fly up there to their nest.

576 Posts
It is a fascinating story. One of our science teachers here raises them and hunts with them...pigeons that are taking over our town building tops.
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