Friday, June 30, 2017

Love, chicks and science under the Ship Canal Bridge

By Mike Allende 

Earlier this spring, Ariel spotted Maverick. She took his breath away, and she decided he should be part of her world. Maverick flew through the danger zone to kiss the girl. One thing led to another. And that’s how our workers found themselves under the Ship Canal Bridge, 95 feet above Portage Bay and Lake Union, on a sunny Friday at the end of June.

Crews must climb down two ladders to get under the Ship Canal Bridge,
95 feet above the lake.
Say what?

Allow me to explain.

Banding under the Ship Canal Bridge 
It’s a long way down for both our workers and the new chicks they’re visiting under the Ship Canal Bridge. Peregrine falcon chicks, that is.

The siblings hatched around June 11 to thrilled parents Ariel and Maverick. Now about 3 weeks old, it’s the perfect time for chicks to be banded with identification tags. Their legs have reached adult size, but they don’t yet have their flight feathers.

That’s where we come in.

 Workers, including a maintenance technician, our wildlife biologist and one of our communicators, escort a licensed falcon bander from the Falcon Research Group under the bridge to attach bands to the chicks. But it’s not quite that simple.

The group climbs down two ladders on the outside of the Ship Canal Bridge, one 40 feet and the other 20 feet. They’re secured to the bridge with a heavy-duty climbing harness with lanyards and hooks, preventing them from falling into the water. While secured to a cable, the group walks across a beam to a nesting box where the falcon family lives.

Ariel loudly protests our interference in her otherwise calm day.
New parents Ariel and Maverick aren’t always interested in having visitors, though, and can attack and dive-bomb to protect their chicks. Keep in mind that peregrines are the fastest animal on Earth, with the ability to dive at more than 200 mph. So, our group carries open umbrellas for protection. This time, Ariel mostly hung around some of the beams and screeched loudly at the group.

Our group approaches the nesting box from both sides to secure the chicks and place them in a soft sided bag. One person gently holds each chick, while the bander measures its leg and places the band on, then returns the chick to the bag. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Finally, the chicks are carefully returned to their nest.

Why bother?
Banding is an essential part of bird conservation, and studying bird habits helps focus conservation efforts to keep them safe and healthy. The small, metal bands have codes that help identify the bird. Millions of birds are banded worldwide each year, which helps researchers better understand migration, bird ranges, life span and behavior.

The falcon chicks aren’t typically thrilled to have bands placed on their legs, but we’re quick and gentle.

The story of Ariel and Maverick
The story of Ariel and Maverick is one of love, loss and learning to love again.

It goes back to 2002, when a male falcon ruled the Ship Canal airspace along with his mate, Bridget. Bridget died in 2013 and the male – who we never did name – attracted Ariel in 2014. They lived at both the Ship Canal and University bridges, until the male was involved in a collision this past March and died at the age of 16 while in the care of PAWS. He was among the last of the many offspring of Belle and Stewart, the first peregrines to reoccupy the Seattle area in 1994 after a many-decades absence.

In April or May, Ariel bonded with Maverick, who we believe was nesting at the old Washington Mutual Building until his mate died recently. That takes us to the chicks.

Falcons, bridge maintenance and transportation planning
Peregrine falcons are the unsung heroes of our bridge maintenance program. They dominate the airspace around a bridge, creating a “no fly zone” for other birds, which reduces bird droppings that contain uric acid and can corrode paint and steel on bridges. This reduces the need for maintenance work on bridges.

The peregrine falcon chick appears to say, “How could you?” after we’ve completed placing a band on its leg and placed it safely back in a soft bag before moving it back to its nest.

The banding efforts assists us in transportation planning as well. Because peregrines are still recovering from near extinction, we don’t know all the places they would normally nest. Banding has shown us they are flocking to natural sites that have been vacant for decades and tells us which natural habitats need to be preserved as we plan for transportation needs. The Falcon Research Group also lets us know about the species using our structures, so we know in advance what to expect during construction and maintenance work and can keep the wildlife and workers safe.

The banding operation is a bit stressful for the falcon family – and sometimes for our workers high above the lake – but the end result is a win for everyone.


WG said...

How many other states can boast a DOT that takes the time to write so engagingly about all its activities? You are truly excellent, WSDOT. Keep up the great work.

WSDOT said...

Thanks for the feedback! Glad you liked it!

Unknown said...

Cool, like it and a good job of explaining as well

Northgate Nan said...

"millions of birds are banded each year...." It makes me wonder when you cut the justifications for traumatizing wildlife. Is there no point when you let them be and observe from a distance?

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