Celebrating The Peregrines Return To Iowa

February 19, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

“It’s been an incredible year for peregrine falcons. We now have more peregrines nesting back on natural cliffs than we do on buildings.” Bob Anderson, Director, Raptor Resource Project

WAUKON JUNCTION IOWA – Assembled along the stone base of a towering Mississippi river cliff, a hopeful collection of falconers peer skyward. Traveling from across four Midwestern states, the congregation of raptor enthusiasts arrived in Allamakee County late last summer, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive peregrine falcon alive and wild in its native habitat.

Although once listed as a common inhabitant of the Mississippi river blufflands, uninhibited post World War II use of DDT pesticides had a devastating effect peregrine populations. By the late 1960s, DDT contamination had completely eradicated the species in Iowa as well as from the entire eastern half of the U.S.

But times are changing. Thanks to an aggressive conservation effort spearheaded by Iowa falconers, this dynamic species is currently staging a dramatic comeback.

For those possessing patience and a good pair of binoculars, the chance of seeing a modern-day, free flying peregrine is all but assured. For last summer’s peregrine watchers, the wait was amazingly short. The first falcon was spotted within six minutes.

“Here comes one now,” announced Raptor Resource Project Director and Iowa falconer, Bob Anderson. Based at Decorah, Anderson’s Raptor Project has long aided in the peregrine’s recovery and is currently monitoring the bird’s return to historic Mississippi river nest sites.

As if on cue, the speeding falcon turned and then passed directly above the earthbound onlookers. Raising his binoculars, Anderson quickly confirmed that the bird was a young-of-the-year male, one of three youngsters produced at the Waukon Junction cliff this summer.

“This has really been a remarkable year for peregrines,” said Anderson. “So far, we’ve documented peregrine activity on 23 separate Mississippi river cliffs which is a gain of 5 new territories over last year.”

“It really is amazing. Less than ten years ago, there were no peregrine falcons nesting on natural cliff sites, but all that has changed,” said Anderson. “Today, the cliff birds outnumber the ‘city falcons’ that nest on skyscrapers and other [urban] structures. The ultimate goal of this recovery has been to return falcons to historic cliff sites, and now they’ve accomplished that.”

But although there is ample cause for celebration, Anderson cautions that modern-day peregrines are not necessarily home free.

Midwestern peregrines have been the most studied bird population in the U.S., notes Anderson. Falcons nesting on natural cliff ledges are exposed to ‘real world’ hazards. By analyzing data obtained from ongoing leg band readings, Raptor Resource Project observers are discovering that Mississippi river peregrine populations have a much faster turnover than their longer lived urban counterparts.

“When first attempting the river recovery, we assumed that great horned owls would pose one of the greatest threats to peregrine survival,” says Anderson. “We were wrong. Instead we’ve discovered that peregrines are more than capable of dealing with the danger of horned owls. Adult peregrines will also show aggression toward birds like red-tailed hawks and bald eagles, and will drive them away from nest sites. But show peregrines a horned owl, and the aggression becomes intense. They just turn into Tasmanian devils, and owls don‘t stand a chance of taking their youngsters. Right now, rain and raccoons seem to be the limiting factor on peregrine eggs and young.”

Included among last year’s crowd of Hawk Heads was Ross Dirks, master falconer and owner of Northwest Iowa’s Dickinson County Animal Clinic. A charter member of the Iowa Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team, Dirks actively sponsored the release of young peregrines to Mississippi river blufflands.

“This is just an incredible event,” said Dirks. “Now I can say that I’ve actually been to the Mississippi river and have seen wild peregrines nesting on a natural cliff in Iowa.”

“When the river recovery work began, we all knew that there would be risks and no one knew for sure if this could work. But now, the peregrine falcon has returned.”

“To have this species back on historic cliffs in Iowa is just an amazing accomplishment,” Dirks added. “It’s simply amazing.”

A peregrine falcon chick surveys its surroundings from atop a Mississippi river cliff ledge. As a direct result of efforts of the Iowa Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team, wild peregrines are currently returning to recolonize historic eyries up and down the upper Mississippi.

During 2008, expanding falcon populations established a new modern-day record. The falcons’ successful restoration to natural cliff sites is the direct result of efforts of the Iowa Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team. Comprised largely of Iowa falconers, the group’s raised more than $100 thousand from 1998 to 2000. The funds were used to construct and maintain hack sites and for the purchase and release 117 captive reared, young peregrines.

Article and photos by: Lowell Washburn

Iowa Falconers Stage Winter Field Meet – Article

February 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

This article was published originally by the Iowa DNR and you can view their website here. The article’s author, Lowell Washburn is a DNR staff writer and a member of the IFA.

Iowa Falconers Stage Winter Field Meet – Run Rabbit Run
by Lowell Washburn
Posted: February 10, 2009 Tom Deckert

SPIRIT LAKE – The scene was enough to send shivers down the fur of even the most predator-savvy cottontail. Hawks, humans, and hounds — all working together in a combined effort to collect the main ingredient of a rabbit stew. The eminent danger was enough to send sensible bunnies scurrying for their burrows, which is exactly what the majority of them did.

Although the unlikely coalition of hunters may have appeared a bit bizarre to most folks, there was an easy explanation for it all. The members of this rather unique hunting party were all participants in the annual Winter Hawking Meet of the Iowa Falconer’s Association. Staged in northern Iowa’s Dickenson County, the three day event was conducted against a mixed backdrop of farm groves, fence lines, and public wildlife areas.

“For many falconers, the winter meet marks the high point of the entire hunting season,” says IFA President, Tom Deckert. “The hunt gives falconers an opportunity to spend time in the field while observing the hunting tactics and flight styles of various species of raptors. Even within the same species, individual birds seem to adapt their own hunting strategy and every flight is unique.”

A long time master falconer and professional Davenport firefighter, Deckert is currently flying a young-of-the-year Siberian goshawk — the first of its kind ever used for falconry in Iowa. After wowing the crowd with its fearless nature and powerful flight style, the young bird conducted a couple of near misses before successfully bagging “two head of game” amongst the dense tangles of a public hunting area. Hunting Party

“Although the number of contemporary falconers is very small when compared with other groups of hunters [less than 50 falconers are licensed in Iowa], we had a strong turnout for this year’s winter meet,” noted field meet coordinator, Ross Dirks of Spirit Lake. “Participants flew just about everything there is from goshawks to gyrfalcons — peregrines to red-tails. We also had a number of interested nonfalconers attend the outing. Overall, I think everyone was very pleased with the event.”

“The weather was great and rabbits were plentiful,” Dirks added. “Everyone had an opportunity to see some really spectacular flights. In most cases, predators [hawks] and prey [rabbits] are very evenly matched, and once the hawk is turned loose you never really know what’s going to happen. Although a number of cottontails were successfully brought to bag, most rabbits managed to escape which is exactly the way it works in nature.”

“It can be hard to explain to people who haven’t seen it, but hunting wild game with trained hawks or falcons is simply an incredible experience,” says Deckert. “Falconry is one of the world’s most ancient hunting techniques and the sport has changed very little during the past four thousand years. Basically, the hawks just do what they do every single day in the wild, which is to hunt for their food. The big difference is that trained raptors let you tag along and become part of that hunt. Falconry requires extreme dedication, but over time you begin to develop a real bond with your bird. It’s a high octane pastime and the hawk can fly away any time it chooses. That can make things a bit scary at times, but it’s worth it. When you’re out with your bird, every hunt becomes an adventure.”