Friday, June 1, 2007

Helping WSDOT projects and critters get along...

My name is Michael MacDonald and I work in the environmental section of WSDOT. My job is to make sure WSDOT projects and critters get along. This is a real thrill for me in general but it gets especially exciting every year about this time when I climb out to the underside of the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge to band juvenile peregrine falcons.

I’ve been anticipating the bird nesting season all winter. The coordination was set up with Bridge Maintenance and members of the Falcon Research Group. We were meeting near the Northgate Mall parking lot as we have for the past five years. We schedule the visit to coincide with a lull in traffic and just before the I-5 express lanes send traffic north.

After a safety briefing, donning a body harness, a last minute check of banding equipment, and plan of attack, we load into the truck followed by the safety of the big bumper truck.

It’s exciting to reach the drop off point mid-span of the bridge. I mentally prepare myself going down the ladder on the outside of the bridge with the 80-foot plus drop to the park below. My redundant safety lanyard clips on and off the metal rungs as I descend 30ish feet until I reach the pier cap. As my feet touch the massive concrete the male falcon is on us. Floating in the wind at eye level, the smaller male “cacks” a defensive warning. He’s the same resident male and in the past he’s played a role in defending his newborn chicks. He gets your attention while the larger female goes in for the strike from behind. I turn to see where she is, hoping I can find her before she hits me. Luckily she’s perched 50 feet away at the other end of the pier cap and gives me enough time to orient myself and check on the decent of my companions. We’re all down and clicked on to the safety cable before she takes her first crack at us. Three of us are exposed to the unhindered flyway and she predictably takes advantage of it scraping her talons across our helmets and shoulders. We’ve learned to counter her attacks with in a Mary Poppins fashion. We may look silly sporting the umbrella but it’s effective to confuse and frustrate her as she tries to bully her way through the material.

I quickly round up the four youngsters found huddled in a gap and gently put them into a sack. They act as if they’re world is about to end and I’m sure they’re questioning why their F-15 mother isn’t destroying the intruders as she’s done on every other occasion. Despite being only 21 days from a peep in the shell they take their shots as best they can and clamp onto my bare fingers several startling times. I’m concentrating on not hurting the fragile fresh blood-filled fluffy feathers but also trying to anticipate the pummeling I’m about to take.

Momma is going berserk and finally gets a clean shot at my back sinking her talons through three layers but barely grazes the skin. She gains speed and clips me again. Then grabs my helmet edge with her talons and strokes her wings as if she’s trying to lift it off so she can have a really good whack at me. Good thing it’s strapped on. With the babies bundled up and quiet now Momma stands by the nest box and looks around forlornly for where her babies may be. We clamp metal unique ID bands on both lower legs of the juveniles. Once more I leave myself wide open for a drubbing as I return them to their cubbyhole. Momma flaps around but doesn’t take a shot this time. We leave for the ladder 20 minutes later and we’re back up to the bridge deck where our ride awaits right on schedule.

I hope at least one of the youngsters will survive to adulthood and carry on the genes of Bell and Stewart, their grandparents from the Washington Mutual Tower.

People ask me why we band the falcons and what falcons have to do with road and bridge building. We try to be good stewards of the environment. With the falcons, we are in a unique position. They like our bridges. Our bridges like them. They help us keep the bridge clear and pest free. In exchange, we help track the juveniles so experts can learn more about their life and, in turn, we can help rejuvenate their species which only recently came off the threatened species list.

By Michael MacDonald