Unusual journey brings rare falcon to nest in Charlotte

lcrampton@charlotteobserver.comJune 26, 2013 

One of the adult peregrine falcons perches on a ledge outside the 40th floor of the One Wells Fargo building in downtown Charlotte.

COURTESY OF JEFF HELM

A rare peregrine falcon is raising her family atop a Charlotte skyscraper, surprising researchers with her unconventional life.

This is the first time in North Carolina that a peregrine falcon nest was found outside the mountains, said Don Seriff, Mecklenburg County’s natural resources coordinator.

Adding to the falcon’s unusual story: She’s nearly 1,000 miles from the New England site were she was born and would normally stay to breed. And she moved to Charlotte after first going to Atlanta, where observers described her as lacking good mothering skills.

Her nest in Charlotte appeared in April on the 40th floor of the One Wells Fargo building on South College Street, and two eggs hatched on Mother’s Day.

Tracking the falcon’s leg band showed the bird was born in New Hampshire and had previously lived in Atlanta.

“This bird is very unusual in the fact that it traveled so far from where it was born,” Seriff said. The falcon was likely drawn to uptown’s tall buildings because they resemble cliffs, where the species normally nest.

Chris Martin, a senior biologist for New Hampshire Audubon, participates in an identification banding program to keep track of peregrine falcons. Martin banded the adult bird found in Charlotte when it was just a 3-week-old chick in west-central New Hampshire.

Most peregrines breed somewhere near where they were hatched. Martin said biologists were astounded to learn this falcon had traveled the long distance south.

After a falcon is banded on its leg, the numbers are put into a national registry. Bird watchers spot the identification numbers, and report their sightings.

Based on those observations, Seriff learned that Charlotte’s peregrine falcon had traveled to North Carolina in search of a new suitor after her mate in Atlanta was injured and died.

“It went from a residential building in Atlanta, to a front-and-center downtown high-rise commercial district,” Martin said. “I guess it improved its lot in life there.”

While they’re no longer listed as federally endangered, North Carolina still lists peregrine falcons as an endangered species.

Charlotte’s falcon was not the best mother in Atlanta, according to observers there, and made her mate do most of the work raising their chicks. But the falcon appears to be doing a good job with her new mate and family in Charlotte, Seriff said.

Chris Kelly, a nongame and endangered-species biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, has led an effort to re-establish breeding peregrines in the mountains.

In 2010, Kelly said, there were 13 identified peregrine nests in the state, the highest known number since the reintroduction effort first began in the 1980s.

The birds are as fascinating to watch as they are rare. In a dive for prey, Kelly said, peregrines can reach speeds of more than 100 mph.

Their diet consists of small birds, and they sometimes feed on small mammals and reptiles. In a city, peregrines hunt pigeons, starlings and house sparrows.

Seriff said the Charlotte area has seen an overall drop in bird sightings, primarily caused by habitat loss and fragmentation. That’s despite efforts to preserve “islands of protection in the sea of urban sprawl.”

Crampton: 704-358-5112 On Twitter: @liz_crampton

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