Peregrine falcons discovered in Thacher Park

Peregrine falcons as depicted in John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” (1838). The peregrine falcons nearly disappeared from New York State due to threats like DDT poisoning. 

NEW SCOTLAND — A pair of peregrine falcons have been spotted on the south side of John Boyd Thacher State Park. But, while the news of the endangered birds have brought about excitement of their discovery, it has raised about concern over potential plans for an “adventure ropes course” proposed for the area.

The peregrine falcons were discovered on Earth Day, April 22, according to regional parks Director Alane Ball-Chinian.

“One of them was squawking at us,” said park manager Maureen Curry.

There are two birds, says Ball-Chinian, but scientists have not established genders or if there is a nest. The park has state Department of Environmental Conservation scientists and their own expert, Scott Crocoll, looking into the birds and their protection.

"We're really excited about the presence of this bird," Ball-Chinian said.

Nancy Engle, head of the Emma Treadwell Nature Center, said the DEC has been surveying the area the peregrine falcons were found in, but that no specific information has been obtained about the birds. She says this incident is new to the park, and, because peregrine falcons can be aggressive while nesting, and are also endangered, the DEC and the park have been taking precautions to keep their whereabouts secret.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists the American peregrine falcon as an endangered species. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has delisted the species due to its recovery in other parts of the United States. DDT exposure, which causes birds’ eggshells to thin, was attributed to their decline from the 1940s up to the complete disappearance of their nests in 1965. Initiatives started in the 1970s such as release programs and “hacking,” in which young are placed in artificial nests and cared for until adulthood, have led to a gradual increase of the falcon’s population.

Al Breisch, a retired DEC biologist, lives below the Helderberg escarpment on Fiddlehead Lane.

“My backyard looks straight up Thacher Park,” he says.

Several people had told Breisch about the falcons, including a few DEC officials who explained to him about the birds and the best places to see them.

Breisch says the falcons haven’t nested on the park’s cliffs since the 1950s.

“We still don’t know that they’re nesting,” says Breisch of the present birds, “They’re just seen frequently.”

“Pretty clearly it’s a male and a female.” He added, “If it’s two of them hanging around this time of year, it’s almost always a male and a female.”

Breisch says he has now seen the peregrine falcons a couple of times, and hopes the park will take the necessary measures to preserve them.

“I think it’s just such a neat resource to have in our backyard,” he says of the park.

In regards to the ropes course proposed for the area, Breisch says he isn’t concerned about the noise, but remains wary of the proposed course.

“I know very little about it; my guess is there’s better places to put it,” he says, “To me, it doesn’t blend in with my feelings for what the cliffs are.”

Ball-Chinian said the contractor for the course, a British-Columbian company called WildPlay, has not yet submitted plans and so she doesn’t know yet what the discovery of the falcons means for the adventure course.

WildPlay officials confirmed by email to The Altamont Enterprise that they have a contract to provide an adventure course at the park, and that the forest near the Yellow Rocks picnic area is being considered. Although all elements of the course could not be confirmed, they stated it would included an “aerial adventure course.”

Heather Watters, a spokesperson for WildPlay, says that the company is currently opening an adventure park in Niagara Falls, and that the area also was a home to peregrine falcons. Watters says the company worked with experts to learn about the birds’ habitats and how to safely set up a course near them. However, it was stated in the email from WildPlay that it would be too soon to predict what measures would be in place at Thacher Park.

John Kilroy, president of the organization Friends of Thacher Park, says that, although he is supportive of an attraction like the ropes course that draws people into the park, he believes the discovery of the falcons should be a cause for concern.

“The falcons come first, they’re on the endangered species list,” he said.

Kilroy added that WildPlay didn’t have much mapped out in the original plan.

“It’s not like they put a lot on hold,” he said.

According to Tim Albright, a member of the Friends of Thacher Park, the high adventure ropes course that was proposed as part of the park’s master plan in 2013 did not have any specific area proposed for it until last fall, when it was announced the Yellow Rocks Picnic Area would be used. The area is between the Glen Doone and the Greenhouse Picnic Areas. Albright’s concern with that area in particular is that is hasn’t gone through any major development or activity yet, and that there has been no announced public-comment period.

“This is the last vestige left untouched,” says Albright, of the area.

Kilroy has been to the area before the falcons were spotted, and describes it as rather isolated. However, he says he will not explore that area now at risk of disturbing the birds.

“I know they’re wild animals and that they should be left alone,” he said.

The Friends of Thacher Park is a volunteer organization that coordinates fundraising and events for the park. Kilroy says the organization tries to work closely with park staff.

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