Monday, July 6, 2015

Milwaukee’s peregrine falcons get a helping hand

An edited version of the following story first appeared in my Milwaukee Magazine column online on June 23.

The large falcon bears down on us with intense fury, aiming herself like a missile at our heads. Our squadron of volunteers, wearing hard hats and wielding brooms, fends off her attack. She veers away abruptly, talons menacing. Thwarted but consumed with rage, she immediately pivots to come at us again. We had provoked her in the most distressing way possible, by raiding her nest and stealing her young. She would continue to attack as long as she could.

Hunched and brandishing our brooms, we beat a hasty retreat across the open roof to the safety of the doorway, humbled by her majestic power and fierce determination. Here in this unlikely place, atop a power plant in the middle of Milwaukee’s industrial Menomonee Valley, we are faced with a wild animal as fierce as can be found anywhere.

A sense of déjà vu nearly overwhelms the immediate thrill. Ten years ago I saw another falcon bear down on me with the same righteous fury, here in this same place. For the moment I shake off the memory. No time for reflection as the falcon homes in on us again. This one isn’t going to settle for intimidation.

Greg Septon, the peregrine researcher responsible for our rooftop escapade, holds the animal carrier containing four fledgling falcons that are to be banded. We descend through an ear-splitting mechanical roar in the plant’s enormous main generating chamber. Then, in the relative calm of a conference room, Septon lays the carrier gently on a table that has been prepared for the well-rehearsed banding process. This was not to be a typical banding session, however.
Septon, former researcher at the Milwaukee Public Museum and founder of the Peregrine Falcon Recovery Program, has been banding peregrines every spring for 28 years. During the 2014 nesting season he banded 59 fledglings at 20 different nesting sites in Wisconsin. This year I accompanied him to five sites, all within the City of Milwaukee.

The presence of falcons in places like Milwaukee is significant for several reasons. Historically widespread, peregrines inhabited natural cliffs like those along the Mississippi River and Wisconsin’s rocky Door County peninsula. By the mid-twentieth century, however, due to pesticide poisoning the species was officially endangered and virtually extinct in the eastern half of North America.

For concerned scientists like Septon cities provided ideal conditions for the reintroduction of peregrines. Towering, cliff-like structures of concrete and steel would attract the birds and were accessible, facilitating research and regular monitoring. Moreover, as their numbers rebounded in urban environments peregrines became not only a dramatic success story of wildlife recovery, but also a symbol of a new, more symbiotic relationship between caring humans and wild animal species. Once nearly the cause of their extinction, we can now claim responsibility for the peregrine’s survival.

Banding allows scientists like Septon to manage the regional population by documenting where they go and where they nest. Causes of mortality, life spans and birthrates can be documented. DNA records are archived as part of a database on the recovered population of Midwestern peregrines.
In the conference room at the Menomonee Valley Power Plant that new relationship and commitment to stewardship plays out before a rapt fifth-grade class of schoolchildren from Carollton Elementary in Oak Creek. The participation of the school is just one of the reasons that sets apart the We Energies banding process from the others that I visited. My own history with the Valley is another.

We Energies has partnered with Septon since the falcon program’s inception in 1991. Four years ago the educational component was added in order to complement schools’ existing science curriculums with first-hand experience of wildlife recovery and to instill in the next generation the importance of conservation. Under the guidance of their teacher, Janice Posda, the Carollton fifth-graders had been raising chicks and ducklings in their classroom. Wild falcons are clearly an exciting step up and everyone is riveted to the tableau before them.

Septon, calm and efficient, clamps ID bracelets to each bird’s leg, then draws some blood to record its DNA. As he works he regales the students with falcon facts and personal stories. They learn that peregrines can dive at speeds over 230 mph, making them the fastest creatures on earth; that over 200 falcons have hatched from nests located on 6 Wisconsin power plants; and that the father of these four fledglings, named Hercules, is the offspring of Herbert, who was hatched right here at the Valley Power Plant in 2004.

Was that the year I was here? I recall the event vividly but the exact date is hazy. The symmetry is seductive. Perhaps I was present at Herbert’s banding.

I documented that previous experience in my book Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed. I was enchanted by the vision of wild animals in the urban, industrial landscape. This is how I described the view from the falcon nest, which back then was located on a chimney:

“Black roofs mark the few remaining factories. Vacant parcels are littered with faintly twinkling glass. Tiny trucks pick and prod at a mountain of coal to feed the furnaces beneath my feet. …Across the canal in the city impoundment lot, carelessly arranged carcasses of abandoned automobiles lie atop the contours of a huge mound of gravel. In another direction lies their probable fate: scrap metal awaiting reclamation is being sorted into irregular piles.”

In the decade since I wrote those words much in the industrial valley has changed. There has been a concerted effort to revitalize, to create new jobs and to rehabilitate the ravaged landscape. While the work is ongoing, there are new factories and fewer vacant lots. Underground pipelines have replaced the mountain of coal as We Energies finalizes the power plant’s conversion to cleaner natural gas. Miller Compressing, the recycling operation, is still in business, but much more than metals are being reclaimed in the Menomonee Valley.

The most exhilarating development: wildlife now can inhabit—and we humans enjoy—parks and natural areas where only brownfields existed ten years ago. More restoration is planned. In 2004, when Greg Septon banded fledgling Herbert, he was helping to create the world that these young fifth-graders were born into. The falcons are a sign of hope that we can bequeath them a more sustainable world.

The time for naming has arrived. The students are prepared. For inspiration they had turned to a combination of science and fantasy. The first name they chose was Krypton, after the comic book hero Superman’s fictional home planet. When they learned that Krypton was an element on the periodic table, they continued down the list of noble gases. Argon, Radon and Xenon seemed equally powerful and appropriately gender neutral.

As Septon deftly grabs each fledgling and gently flips it onto the waiting towel he remarks on the size and calls out the sex. “It’s a girl,” he says of the first three. They take the names Argon, Radon and Xenon. The only boy, characteristically smaller, is last. He will be called Krypton. The children lean forward, watching intently.

Like all of them, little Krypton struggles and squawks. But this time there’s a problem. An unusual flinch by the young falcon during the routine blood draw causes a nick in the vein. In an attempt to staunch the bleeding Septon applies styptic powder. His demeanor shifts ever so slightly, more business-like. He asks the class to be patient. “We may be here a while,” he tells us. “My whole concern now is for the bird.” He repeats the phrase, like a mantra.

I ask how often this occurs. “In 28 years, this is the second time,” he says.

For 28 years Septon’s concern has been for the birds. Fortunately, his concern reflects a similar shift in society at large. As he and I traveled around the city to visit the various nest sites I was struck by the universality of the experience. At each place people stopped what they were doing to witness the event, enthralled by the presence of these wild and fragile animals in their midst.

An observation I made ten years ago still rings true:

“Once in their lives these wild creatures must endure this violation because our society has decided to care whether they live or die. The look in their eyes is a clear sign that banding doesn't tame them, but it creates a platform on which we can build a case for mutual survival.”

The passage of time has not changed the basic elements of the banding process. Peregrines are still listed as endangered in Wisconsin and in need of our stewardship. But ten years on I sense a shift in the human drama that surrounds and upholds the actions of the privileged few, those lucky enough to assemble around conference tables at Malteuroup, We Energies and Veolia, around a science lab table at UWM, and around a card table on the top floor of US Bank, the tallest building in the State.

Most people still find it easier to conjure images of raptors lofting above the cliffs of Devil’s Lake or Wyalusing State Parks. But it is increasingly possible—and terribly important in the 21st century—to look at the monuments of Milwaukee and other urban habitats and visualize the peregrine and other wildlife species that have successfully adapted to an environment that’s been transformed utterly. It is the environment that we have created—for them and for ourselves.

If we want peregrines to remain a part of our urban landscape for future generations, we must continue to provide safe nest sites for them and effectively manage their populations.
Eventually the bleeding stops. Septon signals his relief and repeats his mantra. The students, having grown restless during the wait, quickly hush with renewed enchantment. They, too, are visibly relieved. Still squawking, little Krypton rejoins his noble sisters in the crate. Then, as he’s done countless times, Septon returns the fledglings to the rooftop nest and stands back to allow a more subdued but still agitated mother to return and tend to her brood.

Photos from the other banding sites:

The massive Malteurop corporation grain elevators dominate the landscape for miles around its location at the intersection of Lincoln Ave. and Miller Park Way. Security is tight; one of the things that have changed in the 28 years Septon has been banding falcons. What hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm of the personnel who eagerly anticipate his arrival each year.

The process of retrieving the fledglings was uniquely challenging here. Septon, encased in a full-body suit, wearing a regulation hockey helmet in lieu of the usual hard hat and clipped to a safety cable anchored to the building, was entirely on his own to gather the young and fend off the adults. As he approaches the nest box the female falcon soars by.

Once back in the administrative offices it was business as usual. The crowd of employees who gathered to watch spilled out into the hall and peered through conference room windows. Constant chatter amongst the observers accompanied the raucous commotion of the fledglings as they were being handled.

The four fledglings were banded with ID bracelets on their legs, blood was drawn for DNA sampling, and they were named. Then came the highlight of the event: the lineup. Septon placed the still-complaining birds on the floor for a fledgling peregrine photo op.

The Engineering and Mathematical Sciences building at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, though not as tall as the Sandburg Hall dorms, is as cliff-like as any on that diverse campus. Here the nest box rests on a narrow ledge outside the top floor, about 140 feet high.

Tom Schuck, emeritus Facilities Manager and Building Chair for Biological Sciences (far right), assisted Septon, as he has for the past 8 years. Joining us were three members of the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center and three graduate students from the UWM Ornithology Lab, including Piotr, a visiting scholar from Poland (center).

The Jones Island Water Treatment Facility is as unlikely a place to find wildlife habitat as any that I have visited. Surrounded by the complex and gargantuan machinery of human wastewater reclamation, a falcon nest box is a clear indication that our species has turned a corner in its relationship with the natural world. Once we laid waste to the world, thoughtlessly dumping noxious effluents into our rivers. Now we consider ourselves its stewards.

Veolia’s President and General Manager, Scott Royer (far right), assists Greg Septon with banding as excited employees look on. Community Relations Manager, Joyce Harms (far left) was especially enthusiastic. “It’s amazing!” She said. “This is one of the coolest things about my job.”

The crowd of onlookers, more intimate here, was no less enthralled. Building Engineer Al Labinski assisted Septon. He’d invited his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter to witness the banding. They also got to name the three fledglings. Three-year-old Josie, thrilled to give the name Sophia to the only female of the bunch, had to be comforted herself when Sophia squawked loudly during the banding.

Unlike the other locations, here the small cadre of curious human onlookers was joined by a rather tormented avian one. The whole time we were in full view of Adah, the mother falcon, who flew ceaselessly back and forth outside the enormous bank building windows.

At nearly 600 feet, the highest falcon nest by far is situated on a narrow parapet outside the seldom-used observation deck of the U. S. Bank building. As we walk around it, Septon points to the locations of all four of the other nest boxes in Milwaukee. “On a clearer day you can see the power plant in Port Washington, too,” he said.

To see more images of the five banding sites, go to my flickr album.

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