Young peregrine falcons spotted in Tarentum Bridge nest

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, May 22, 2014, 1:16 p.m.

Parting the sea of traffic, PennDOT trucks blocked off a small portion of the Tarentum Bridge on Thursday morning to make a safe haven to retrieve and inspect two young peregrine falcons.

That was after Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists were lowered into the superstructure of the bridge via a PennDOT Snooper crane.

One of the biologists, Tom Keller, a slim man, squeezed himself into an impossibly small hole in a box beam to reach the young peregrines, which are state endangered birds.

As another biologist and a PennDOT worker waited in the bucket of the crane — dangling over the Allegheny River — the peregrine mother shrieked and dive-bombed the nest's intruders.

But the men made a getaway: The spelunking biologist bagged the peregrines and, via the crane, brought them up to the bridge deck for an examination.

This is the third known nesting — and the second nesting where the adults have reared young — for the peregrines in the Tarentum Bridge, which they have frequented for about five years.

The soft down of the young birds swirled in the breeze, falling on the sidewalk and the busy bridge. The young peregrines were surprisingly old: They had lost most of their down and looked like brown versions of their parents with a finely lined breast, slate grey-blue back and side burn.

A 9-year-old student from nearby Grandview Elementary arrived to see the banding activities: “These birds are bigger than I thought they would be,” said Tayshaun Wright of Tarentum.

The young male and female were in excellent condition and are about 35 days old, said Dan Brauning, wildlife diversity chief for the game commission.

Brauning and other game commission biologists are fanning out across the state to band as many of the young peregrines in more than 40 nests to document their health and track their whereabouts.

Pittsburgh, Monaca

Earlier this week in the Pittsburgh area, Brauning and Keller banded five young peregrines in the Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh and four young at the Monaca East Rochester Bridge.

According to the game commission, about 70 percent of the state's peregrine nesting sites are on bridges.

Later Thursday, the commission went to the McKees Rocks Bridge and found protective parents but not any young birds.

The Tarentum birds could start to fly in five to 10 days, Brauning said.

“This was a success for the birds and a success for us,” said Rob Protz, a Brackenridge resident and volunteer nest monitor for the game commission, who was a pin cushion for one of the bagged peregrines that dug its claw into his shirt waiting for the completion of his sibling's banding.

Last year, Protz and others were disappointed that the game commission and PennDOT went looking for the young peregrines in the bridge and didn't find any young birds, only an abandoned egg.

The bridges present interesting challenges as the exact location or progression of the nest is usually unknown. For example, when Brauning and Keller attempted to band peregrines on the Westinghouse Bridge on Tuesday, they didn't find young, but instead a female incubating three eggs.

And in Monaca, the peregrine mother was merciless with the nest intruders, where everyone got tagged by her dive bombing.

In fact, Keller was sporting a scratch on his forehead on Thursday from the encounter.

Brauning was not surprised, as during his decades-long tenure, he has banded the Monaca female's mother and grandmother. “All were aggressive,” he said.

The biologists use safety gear and hard hats and sometimes wield a broom as a baffle from the protective parents. “It's exciting,” Brauning said.

While the birds are still state endangered, their numbers continue to steadily climb.

“It's a privilege to be banding now and to see years of conservation work come to the fruition.”

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