FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) — More than 800 feet above the New River in Fayette County, brave tourists who come here to traverse the narrow catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge are getting a rare glimpse at the bridge's three newest avian residents.
Last month, tour guides at Bridge Walk — a company that takes groups across the New River Gorge Bridge on a two-foot-wide catwalk beneath the bridge deck — started noticing four falcon hatchlings poking their heads out of one of the bridge's beams. Since then, guides and tourists have regularly sighted the baby birds of prey in their nest, about 50 feet below the catwalk near the center of the bridge.
"They were like white little fluffballs," said Ali Braenovich, a tour guide for Bridge Walk. "They're getting bigger, though."
Braenovich said a pair of adult peregrine falcons have been nesting under the bridge since 2011. Peregrines are very territorial; they typically build their nests at least two miles apart from each other.
"He doesn't let us get to close to him," Braenovich said of the male falcon, though she says the nest isn't close enough for bridge-walkers to disturb it.
"He basically wants us off his bridge. If he sees us, he'll sometimes squawk at us until we move on."
Tour guides think the falcon hatchlings are about four weeks old. When they come near their nest's entrance for sunlight, tourists on the catwalk above snap photos of the birds, which have now grown feathers.
Recently, the juvenile falcons could be seen taking in the morning sunlight, occasionally peering their heads out of the bridge beam. One of the little ones climbed to the edge of the entrance to the nest and stretched its wings out over the foggy gorge.
The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on Earth, reaching speeds of more than 200 mph in a dive. They hunt other birds, such as pigeons and doves, and typically nest high on cliffs, or on tall trees or buildings, according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
The species of falcon was once plentiful in the New River Gorge, but was nearly driven to extinction because of the pesticide DDT. Only 40 percent of peregrine falcons live past their first year in the wild, but DDT caused the falcons' eggs to have less calcium content and become more susceptible to breaking. The peregrine falcon had already virtually disappeared from the East Coast when the EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972.
Through restoration efforts, the peregrine falcon is making a comeback. Wendy Perrone, executive director of the Three Rivers Avian Center in Brooks, Summers County, has served as project coordinator for the New River Gorge Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project. From 2006 to 2011, 120 peregrine falcons have been raised and released into the New River Gorge.
"We're delighted they're coming back into the gorge," Perrone said. "There's a very good habitat not just in the Gorge Bridge, but in the gorge. They've also been seen in Charleston and Nitro."
The Three Rivers Avian Center worked with wildlife organizations in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to capture baby peregrine falcons that were born into nests in dangerous locations. As baby peregrines learn to fly, they are susceptible to being hit and killed by vehicular traffic if their nest is near a roadway.
"There were chicks coming out of those nests and getting killed right away," Perrone said. "These nests were in endangered areas. They had a history of high — if not complete — mortality in a couple of years. The chicks were taken from these nests and brought to the New River Gorge to try to re-establish peregrine falcons into the gorge."
Peregrine is derived from the Latin word "peregrinus," which means "foreign" or "wandering". Peregrine falcons released by the Three Rivers Avian Center are ankle-tagged and sometimes given GPS trackers so staff can track the birds' movements. Perrone said one peregrine falcon was tracked to six of the seven continents over a one-year period before returning to West Virginia.
Though many peregrine falcons released in the Gorge end up nesting elsewhere, Perrone said there are many more sightings than there were 10 years ago.
"When we started we wouldn't see any. You'd see one or two once in a blue moon," Perrone said. "But once we started the restoration you'd see 15 or 20 peregrines."
Though there's no way of knowing how many falcons are nesting in the gorge, Mark Graham, chief of natural resources for the New River Gorge National River, said the real indicator of the program's success came in 2011, when falcons that had been released into the gorge in previous years started coming back to their "hack box" for food. When baby peregrine falcons were brought into the gorge, they would be released from a hack box, and staff would put out food at the box as the eagles acclimated to their new environment.
"That was a good sign that there were returning falcons," Graham said.
Because of the pair of falcons, Braenovich said no other birds typically nest on the bridge. "We'll get pigeons sometimes, but if the falcons see them, they're going to be dinner," Braenovich said.
Bridge Walk guides said the underbelly of the New River Gorge Bridge had been covered in pigeon droppings before the falcons nested in the bridge. But once the family of falcons took residence on the bridge, other birds have mostly kept away from the bridge.
Over the next few weeks, guides and tourists will be watching for the baby falcons' first flights. Peregrine falcons typically learn to fly five to six weeks after hatching.
Bridge Walk tours are offered seven days a week — except Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day and Bridge Day weekend — at $69 per person. Call 304-574-1300 to make reservations, or visit www.bridgewalk.com for more information.
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.charlestondailymail.com