Going “over the edge” to help facilitate the comeback of peregrine falcons in the Mississippi River Valley

Rappelling the bluff ... Amy Ries of the Raptor Resource Project starts her rappelling descent through the brush from a blufftop overlooking the Mississippi River valley in northeast Iowa. Ries says she is thankful for the landowners who so generously allow them access to the bluffs on their properties. Photo by Scott Boylen.

Making his descent ... The crew that rappelled and banded peregrine falcons this spring included Raptor Resource Project Director John Howe, David Kester, Amy Ries, Sophia Landis and Mark Webber. Other volunteers included Bill Smith, Jon Stravers and Maggie Jones. Pictured above is David Kester as he prepares to go over the bluff in hope of retrieving the young peregrine falcons to be banded for the project. Photo by Scott Boylen.

First-time experience ... Sophia Landis of Elkader rappelled with the Raptor Resource Project for the first time this year. Here she holds a young peregrine after it has been banded (blue band on leg in photo foreground). Once the young are banded and information is gathered they are safely taken back to their nest. Photo by Scott Boylen.

by Kelli Boylen

Most people who live in northeast Iowa have overlooked the Mississippi River valley from the top of a bluff and looked up at the bluff tops from the river valley.

Few have rappelled down the cliffs, and it’s safe to say the number of people who have rappelled down the bluff sides to fetch baby peregrine falcons while the parent birds are dive bombing their efforts is very few. Members of the Raptor Resource Project (RRP) spend several days each spring doing just that.

Peregrine falcons are the fastest bird in the world, reaching speeds up to 200 miles per hour during hunting dives, and they are once again calling northeast Iowa home thanks to the Raptor Resource Project and the legacy of Bob Anderson.

To Amy Ries, peregrine falcons are a powerful symbol of the ways in which humans can right environmental wrongs. “I love their significance as a returned bird. They are such neat birds: so powerful, so much heart, and such wonderful fliers!” she shared.

Ries has been working with RRP since 1994. She doesn’t have an exact job title, but any given workday might include rappelling, managing social media, helping to install camera systems in trees, web development or grant writing.

The use of the DDT pesticide mostly eradicated peregrine falcons from the eastern half of the United States by the mid-1960s, according to www.raptorresource.org. For hundreds if not thousands of years, peregrines had nested on cliffs in the upper Mississippi River valley, but thanks to the popular pesticide they were one of the first animals placed on the newly-created Endangered Species List in 1973. In the 1970s and 1980s, peregrines were bred in captivity, and in 1988 Anderson started the Raptor Resource Project.

Peregrines started to be successfully reintroduced into urban areas and industrial sites, but they were not returning to the bluffs. Anderson concluded that the birds were imprinted to these urban and industrial sites, so he raised young falcons in a specially-built rock eyrie that resembled a cliff and released them from Effigy Mounds in 1998 and 1999.

David Kester of Decorah was among those who released peregrines at Effigy Mounds two decades ago. Nine birds per year were released into the wild from hacking boxes attached to the cliffs of Effigy Mounds. The birds immediately dispersed both up and down the river.

Those birds successfully started nesting and reproducing in the bluffs in the tri-state area by 2000, but not until 2018 did peregrines return to Fire Point at Effigy Mounds to nest. The last time they were recorded nesting at Effigy Mounds was in 1964.

“Fire Point was very special,” says Ries. “Twenty-one years after the last cliff-release, we have peregrines back at Effigy Mounds, which itself contains peregrine mounds built over a thousand years ago. Falcons are depicted as powerful and revered in Mississippian Culture beliefs and art from the early part of the last millennium (1200 to 1650 CE). People in the Driftless have held peregrine falcons in high regard for a very long time.”

“In the year 2000, we got our first peregrines to nest on cliff sites along the river (peregrines reach breeding age at two years). We’ve been monitoring them ever since,” Kester says.

“Monitoring” consists of usually a team of two people rappelling off the bluff tops to crevasses where peregrines have their nests. The parents tend to be protective, and they usually will screech and fly near the rappeler to intimidate them. They are also known to make contact with the researchers who are dangling precariously from a rope hundreds of feet above the ground.

Ideally, the chicks (called eyases) are banded at around 21 days of age, when they are old enough to sex but too young to try to bolt from the nest, says Ries. “Females are bigger than males and their legs have reached (nearly) adult thickness at that point, so we can sex them and choose appropriately-sized bands. Every once in awhile, you get a ‘tweener’ - is that a big male or a small female? In that case, we listen to the ‘voice’ - females usually have a lower pitch - and look at overall foot size and proportional middle toe length.”

Ries says bird banding allows researchers to study the movement, survival and behavior, and get life histories for at least some of the birds. “Bird banding has helped researchers gather information on mortality rates, dispersal patterns, migration, behavior, social structure, and seasonal and long-term population trends,” she noted. “It allows us to track individual peregrine falcons, giving us an intimate look at how a species behaves as it recovers, grows, and eventually reaches stasis with its environment.”

She continues, “Without bird banding, we could not track the success of our cliff recovery program, know the history of any given site from year to year, or track the ebb and flow between urban and cliff-nesting populations. We would not know that female falcons tend to stay within 200 miles of their natal nests, that males tend to stay within 70 miles of their natal nest. The leg bands we use do not harm birds or adversely affect their survival rates.”

Peregrines’ nests are basically just crevasses in the bluff, but they do not gather twigs or other materials to make what most think of as a nest for their eggs. Eggs are incubated for 29-32 days, and the chicks are raised until they can fly at 35 to 42 days.

Peregrines started nesting at the Paint Rock Unit of Yellow River State Forest in 2004. This year a pair was raising four young, which were banded June 4. Ries says the site in Yellow River State Forest has had multiple falcons over the years who have raised at least 11 young.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff from Yellow River State Forest were able to observe the banding and learn more about the raptors. State Forest Natural Resources Technician Cody Barloon says, “It was an interesting experience to watch everything it took to get these falcons up from their nest. We are extremely fortunate to have a successful nesting pair in Yellow River State Forest.”

This year the RRP team banded 50 falcons at 16 sites, says Ries. “Our numbers were a little reduced this year since we couldn’t get into a lot of sites due to COVID-19. We banded in masks and gloves. I know some people struggle with masks, but try ascending a rope in one! Walking is not so bad by comparison,” she said.

Until 1998, the peregrine was a federal- and state-listed endangered species. It remains on the list of species of “special concern” in Iowa. Ries encourages anyone who is able to read a band number on the leg of a peregrine to report it to the Bird Banding Lab at reportband.gov and contact her at amy@raptorresource.org.

Sophia Landis, an Elkader native, joined the crew at RRP in the fall of 2018, with her initial project being the banding of migrating raptors in the fall, another activity the group does annually. She took climbing/ rappelling training in the Spring of 2019 and assisted on the bluff top when the young birds were brought up. This year was her first time going down the bluff side.

“I kept reminding myself to breathe deeply, and was worried about dropping any of the equipment,” she says of her first time down. “It was amazing to see the river, valley and world from the peregrines’ point of view. I felt lucky, and privileged, to experience such a thing.”

Landis says many nests had four eyases in healthy condition this year, which is the maximum number of young a pair can raise. There was one nest that had a young one that had died from excessive black fly bites before they arrived, and that was heartbreaking for the crew.

Landis says one of the most satisfying parts of her involvement with banding peregrines is knowing the possibilities of successful human interventions with species that are struggling.

“Bob Anderson devoted his entire livelihood to this effort. It is because of his work, along with that of other committed individuals and organizations, that peregrines are making a comeback to a place where they should naturally and rightfully be. I hope this success might inspire others to know that humans can make a positive impact.”

Kester started volunteering with the Raptor Resource Project in 1996. “Meeting Bob and becoming part of the Project changed the course of my life. Here we are 22 years later and able to tangibly witness the complete success of the release program. I can’t adequately put into words how I feel about being a part of this. Saying I am ‘proud’ doesn’t really put it into the proper scope.”

He says working with the birds doesn’t get old. “I’ve been doing this now for 20 years and still find it thrilling,” he shared.

Kester says that while rappelling the first priority is, of course, safety, and then the focus is on the birds. After the babies are topside, there is time to sit in the harness and take in the view.

“It’s spectacular. I realize that no-one else on this planet at that moment in time is seeing what I am seeing; nor feeling what I am feeling - that I am lucky beyond measure to be there,” Kester explained.

The Raptor Resource Project is a nonprofit environmental organization that depends on donors for their entire budget, including research. They are also the organization behind the Decorah Eagle Cam. For more information go to www.raptorresource.org or visit the group’s Facebook page.

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