Peregrine falcons nest in Tarentum Bridge

A female falcon flies around the Tarentum Bridge. Photo by Steve Gosser
A female falcon flies around the Tarentum Bridge. Photo by Steve Gosser
Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, June 18, 2012, 9:33 p.m.

If you want to see the fastest animal on earth -- which can dive through the air at 200 mph -- look no further than the Tarentum Bridge, where a pair of peregrine falcons have successfully nested, producing two young.

The nesting is the first ever confirmed in the Tarentum area, according to Art McMorris, peregrine falcon coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The state Game Commission has been monitoring the population of peregrines in the state, banding young birds at nests when they can.

The peregrine falcon population collapsed in the early 1960s east of the Rocky Mountains because of DDT. The commonly used pesticide, which was banned in the United States in 1972, caused the peregrine eggs to develop such thin shells that they fell apart before the young could develop.

A conservation group known as the Peregrine Fund out of Cornell University worked with government agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and nonprofits across the nation to reintroduce the bird.

Since populations of the predatory birds have rebounded, the peregrine falcon is no longer on the federal endangered species list. The birds were taken off the list in 1999 because nationwide the numbers recovered, bolstered by robust populations in Colorado, Alaska and Arizona, according to McMorris.

However, the recovery has been slower in the East, he said.

The peregrine falcon is still considered to be endangered in Pennsylvania.

"I would say that the population is recovering well in Pennsylvania, but it's not recovered yet to the point where we can really feel confident," McMorris said.

The state has about 29 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons.

And the Tarentum nesting brings the tally to seven nesting pairs in the Pittsburgh area, the most in 50 years.

But local bird-watchers haven't been paying attention so much to the statistics as they watched the female peregrine, known as Hope Pefatar, or 69Z -- her band number -- frequent the Tarentum Bridge for at last three years.

Photographer Steve Gosser of Arnold managed to capture a closeup of her so they could read the identification number on the band.

She had received the leg band in Hopewell, Va.

So the female has been dubbed Hope Pefatar by local birders because they hoped that she would nest successfully and, of course, she was from Hopewell.

'Fun to watch'

"Pefa" is the banding code name used for peregrines and, "tar" is for Tarentum, according to Rob Protz of Brackenridge, who has been monitoring the birds' movements.

"It's a lot of fun to watch them," he said.

Protz has watched the falcons, about the size of crow and known for their agility, attack pigeons throughout the Tarentum area.

Over the past weekend, Protz said he saw a peregrine chase out a bald eagle cruising near the Tarentum Bridge.

"I think the eagle was just passing through, and here comes Ms. Hope, screaming," he said.

He got to watch the entire peregrine family harass some Canada geese and their goslings recently.

"Even the 'juvies' were taking run at them," he said.

These are proud moments for the local birders, as Hope had a nonproductive nesting in 2010 with a male hatched at the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning, according to Kate St. John, a Pittsburgh bird-watcher who follows the local peregrines and compiles information on their nestings.

Bird-watcher Kate St. John of Pittsburgh has a blog on her employer's website, WQED, featuring the Tarentum peregrines.

"That bird loves that bridge," St. John said of the female peregrine. St. John comes up to Tarentum just to watch the new family.

And local birders continue to watch.

"It's been really exciting because for the last two and three years, we were hoping to see some babies," Gosser said. "For whatever reasons, they didn't nest. So the fact that there are two babies this year is so exciting."

McMorris has his fingers crossed for the two young peregrines.

"Fortunately, both of these birds have done well," he said.

"They are flying strongly. But it takes a month for them to fly better, learn to hunt and avoid predators so they can be on their own."

McMorris estimates the young peregrines' "graduation date" to fall around July 10, when they "will be in the clear."

"Now they are playing games like tag, hide and seek," McMorris said. "They also play 'let's gang up on mom and dad, who just returned with a meal,'" he said.

Seven pairs in the region

According to Art McMorris, peregrine falcon coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, there are seven pair of nesting peregrines in the Pittsburgh area including: the Tarentum Bridge; an unidentified building in downtown Pittsburgh; the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland; the Monaca East Rochester Bridge in Beaver County; the McKees Rocks Bridge; the Westinghouse Bridge in Turtle Creek; and the I-79 bridge near Glenfield over the Ohio River.

Tarentum's falcons

Bird-watcher Kate St. John has a blog on her employer's website , WQED, featuring the Tarentum peregrines.<

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