MOUNT MORRIS – A casual birder poked along the trail by the dam on a blustery Friday, camera at the ready. A flying bird caught his eye, too small to be a hawk but slicing the wind faster than any pigeon.
Charles Negley snapped a few photos as the bird perched on a high limb. Later, when he asked some friends what he had seen, the unanimous and surprised answer was ‘peregrine falcon,’ an endangered species in New York State.
“There were about three flying around but I could only get fuzzy photos [because] they’re so fast and far away,” said Negley.
Birders and naturalists are excited by the sightings. The birds are likely to be active around the dam during most daylight hours. Negley said that he saw the birds at about 3 p.m. on Jan. 6 and again on Jan. 9.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says that peregrine populations were devastated by uncontrolled pesticide use in the 1950’s, even moreso than their cousin raptors. Ingestion of bioaccumulating pesticides in their prey species, especially small birds, eliminated them as a nesting species in New York State by the early 1960’s.
However, the release of young captive bred birds from 1974 to 1988 helped them establish minimal breeding numbers. Though still endangered in the state, their numbers have only grown since then.
The hunters are notoriously un-shy of large human structures like the dam. Such structures provide solid surfaces on which to perch and nest while surveying vast areas of open sky, their ideal hunting grounds for flying prey. The doves and pigeons that tend to hang around these areas only sweeten the deal.
The first documented nesting pairs of peregrines after the species’ collapse were seen on two bridges in New York City in 1983. Only two years later were pairs seen nesting on their native cliffs in the Adirondacks. Tall buildings in Buffalo have some nesting pairs, and the Grand Island bridges near Buffalo are regular nest sites.
The DEC says that New York City probably has the largest urban population of peregrine falcons anywhere, and peregrines nest on every Hudson River bridge south of Albany. Peregrines nest on buildings or bridges in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton and Buffalo, with only about 20 pairs present in the Adirondacks.