Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Peregrine Homecoming (Part 3 of 3)

When I first heard the name “duck hawk,” I visualized some sort of hybrid bird – a mix of a hawk and a duck. It’s not a very majestic image – maybe a hawk with a big, Daffy Duck beak or a big butt better suited for floating than soaring – but all that changed when I learned that “Duck Hawk” is just a quaint, old name for a peregrine falcon. I didn’t know much about falcons, but my image of them was sleek, fast hunters who live by catching and killing other animals. That put them in the same category as eagles and hawks which is pretty elite company if we’ll ignore the fact that eagles frequently feast on dead, rotting fish, the aquatic equivalent of roadkill.

There are three main falcons in the eastern US: American kestrel, merlin, and peregrine falcon. These three are sleek, modest-sized birds with black-and-white face markings like the rock band Kiss. The kestrel and merlin are about the size of a blue jay while the peregrine is about six inches longer, about the size of a healthy crow. I’ll occasionally see an American kestrel sitting on a power line overlooking a field. They have rusty-orange colored backs and those distinctive Kiss face markings. Merlins are rare in our area, passing through occasionally during spring and fall migrations.

Peregrine falcons are permanent residents in the eastern US. In fact, they are permanent residents across almost the entire planet, being one of the most widely distributed animals in the world. But that doesn’t mean they are common. There are only three well-documented, breeding pairs in Tennessee: one on Little Duck Hawk Ridge, one near Charlies Bunion, and another pair at the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga. (Personally, I’d bet there are one or two more couples in the Smokies that the NPS isn’t telling us about to protect their privacy.) The owners of Rock City are participating in a falcon “hacking” (the release of captive falcons) program at Lovers’ Leap, so if that project is successful, it will give us another reason to See Rock City.

Ironically, aside from the banning of DDT, the other factor that has strongly contributed to their comeback has been big cities with tall buildings. For example, the first nesting pair of peregrines in the state of Ohio was found in Toledo in 1988; afterwards, they spread to Cincinnati and Cleveland. Chicago and Indianapolis both have peregrine families living in their downtown areas. Not very inspiring stuff. In my mind, that diminishes the glamour of these birds a bit because they appear to occupy the same environmental niche as pigeons, their favorite food.

I’d prefer that they live only in wild, lonely places that are hard to find, but that isn’t how Mother Nature and urban architects wrote the script. They nest on rocky cliffs and ledges, but apparently the concrete walls of bridges, dams, and skyscrapers fit that description well enough to satisfy the falcons. The fact that cities lack the primary predator of falcon chicks – the Great Horned Owl – also makes high-rise, urban areas favorable falcon habitat.

Beside their near extinction, peregrines’ other claim to fame is their speed. On a good, downward dive toward their prey, they can reach speeds of 200 mph, making them the fastest animal in the world. In the wild, these falcons will swoop down like a dive bomber and crash talons-first, mid-air into their prey. They seem to prefer birds that fly in flocks rather than alone, so it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, which isn’t very sporting but is ruthlessly efficient, which is what falcons do.

They have been captured and trained for at least three thousand years, and in the days before guns, they were a useful way of hunting birds. During the Middle Ages in Europe, falconry became “the sport of kings,” a form of entertainment for the elite, perhaps arising from the fact that falcons would sometimes nest on the walls of Medieval castles and cathedrals; although, the fact that only the wealthy nobility would have the leisure time to pursue sport of any kind would also have been part of the equation. So, in spite of their penchant for eating urban pigeons, they do have a trace of nobility in their blood.

So, as we stood at a wide spot on Big Duck Hawk Ridge, looking upon the southern slopes of Mount LeConte, near Peregrine Peak, the Duck Hawks made their appearance. The entire show lasted only 5 minutes, but it was the grand finale to an already fine day. We had grandstand seats for a brief, simple encore by a couple of birds, but it was a show that had been repeated for hundreds or thousands of years, at this very spot with no human witnesses, and then had come to a sudden, almost-permanent halt.

We didn’t see them fly with mind-boggling speed. They didn’t capture any prey. They simply circled and soared, enjoying the fact that they were home again, alive and well in a beautiful place – exactly as God had intended.

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In this article I mentioned two “well documented” breeding pairs in the Smokies, but that might not be exactly true. The family on Little Duck Hawk is well documented and even advertised. I’ve seen an occasional reference in NPS literature about the falcons on this ridge. The second pair near Charlies Bunion is a bit more enigmatic. In the fall of 2010 several of us on a ridge just east of Charlies Bunion witnessed three peregrine falcons harass and attack a hawk that had soared into their territory between us and the Bunion. (It was a great bird-watching moment for all of us; even the non-bird-watchers among us were greatly impressed.) From what I’ve read, protecting territory is “consistent with nesting behavior.” So we definitely saw three peregrines in the area – at one point, they flew right over our heads, within about 50 feet; we could even hear the wind in their wings as they turned and dove – but we don’t really know for certain that they are nesting in the area, nor do we know if the NPS has actually studied them to determine if they are nesting and reproducing. In fact, I’ve never seen any official mention of them. But they are definitely there.

There’s also talk of a pair of peregrines that were spotted in 2003 near the cliffs at the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle, in the area called the Cat Stairs. I’ve also been told that the trail to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle was closed sometime in the 1980s because of a “hacking” program that was being carried out at that time. (Hacking is raising the falcons in captivity and then releasing them into the wild, hoping they’ll survive, nest, and reproduce.) I’ve spent a good bit of time in this area of the park – it’s one of my favorites – but I’ve never seen falcons there.

Because this part of the park is difficult to access, and because it’s one of my favorites, I desperately want the falcons to be there. So, I intend to spend some good, quality time there in the next few years, keeping my eyes open and looking up. The fact that peregrines have a distinctive call while flying means that I’ll keep my ears open, too.

So if you visit Alum Cave or Charlies Bunion (or Greenbiar Pinnacle), keep your eyes and ears open. With a little luck you’ll see one of the best aerial displays this side of the Mississippi.

Big Duck Hawk Ridge (Part 2 of 3)

Ever since our recent trip to the top of Mount LeConte, my friends had been talking incessantly about exploring Big Duck Hawk Ridge on LeConte’s south slope. The views from Alum Cave Trail of Big Duck Hawk Ridge had been enticing. It looked rugged and rocky and, therefore, worthy of inclusion on our To Do Soon list. The fact that peregrine falcons are nesting on nearby Little Duck Hawk Ridge made this section of the park doubly appealing. I had never seen one of these rare falcons before, so my hopes were high that they’d make an appearance.

Big Duck Hawk Ridge from Alum Cave Trail

I had been distracted by some of life’s obligations, so most of the thought and planning for our trip to Big Duck Hawk had been done by my hiking partners, not me. I’ve been the planner and navigator on many family vacations ever since I was young, so I’m not used to just showing up and having a map and itinerary handed to me, but that’s what happened on this trip. As we stepped out of Greg’s car he gave me a topo map with a blue line showing our intended route. We would start at the Alum Cave Trail parking lot but would immediately hop off the trail, cross the river, and work our way up the south side of Big Duck Hawk to its ridgecrest. We would then follow the crest north and east to its junction with Alum Cave Trail near Alum Cave Bluff. It was pretty much the same route that I would have chosen, so there were no great surprises or debates about the route, but I felt a bit bewildered as we started simply because I hadn’t spent a few days ruminating about the pros and cons of the various routes that we could choose from.

After crossing the creek, we immediately dove into a rhododendron thicket that was actually more help than hindrance. It was thick and low enough to force us to weave and crawl, but the branches provided convenient handles for us to grab as we slithered our way up the steep slope. It’s not at all unusual after a hike like this for our arms and backs to be just as tired as our legs.

Without going into all the gory details, I’ll make a long story short by saying that we spent a lot of time thrashing against walls of brier, bushes, and vines on this small side ridge. At one point I actually found myself looking for a rhododendron thicket because that would be easier terrain. Yes, you know you are having a rough day when a rhododendron hell is the easy route.

The wisest words of the day were spoken by Greg Harrell, when he said, “You guys know I love hiking up ridges, but it’s time to try something new….” So we bailed out of our intended path and found a tiny creek to follow. Hiking up these slippery ravines is not easy, but they often provide a much needed reprieve from the brush and thickets that can form impenetrable green walls. It was a good choice. This small creekbed led us to the crest of Big Duck Hawk Ridge, maybe a tenth of a mile east of our original route.

The crest was exactly what we’ve come to expect of these obscure side ridges in this part of the Smokies: narrow, rocky spines adorned with mountain laurel, sand myrtle, and gnarled spruce and table mountain pines. And the views were fabulous, even though we were only about 4,800’ high. There were plenty of ridges and peaks that were higher than we were, but there’s something about being totally alone on a rarely-visited ridge that makes us feel like we are on the top of the world. These rocky ridges are, in our opinion, one of the great, undisclosed secrets of the Smokies. There are few, if any, official trails that lead to settings such as this. The reason for the secrecy is obvious: these rocky ridges are too fragile and risky to advertise to the general public. There would be too much damage done to both the landscape and the tourists.

It’s a sign of a good trip when most of your stops are for the scenic views, not for resting and recuperating. So this was a good trip. As we sat on a rocky spot surrounded by the ridges and valleys of Mount LeConte, Anakeesta Ridge, and Sugarland Mountain, we looked up and ahead toward our junction with Alum Cave Trail. It was appropriate that the name of the peak where we were headed was Peregrine Peak because that was where we caught a glimpse of them – a pair of falcons circling their domain between Big and Little Duck Hawk Ridges.

[To be continued]

Little Duck Hawk Ridge (Part 1 of 3)

I’m secretly glad that it’s illegal to hike on the upper end of Little Duck Hawk Ridge near Peregrine Peak on the southern slope of Mount LeConte. The $20,000 fine (yes, a twenty followed by a comma and three zeros) is a bit stout for my budget. I’m glad for two reasons. One is that it protects the nesting peregrine falcons from disturbance by curious humans. That’s the noble, environmentally sensitive reason.

 Little Duck Hawk Ridge (from Inspiration Point on Alum Cave Trail)

The other reason is that Little Duck Hawk Ridge is extraordinarily rocky and narrow, and it scares me. It looks dangerous, which of course means that some of my friends would feel compelled to give it a try, which also means that the peer pressure from them would force me to give it a try, which, to be honest, is something that I’d rather not do. It’s just too rocky and steep, and yes, it intimidates me. I know from past experience that I may see a narrow, rocky ridge and think that a hike along the crest would be awesome. Then we work our way up to the ridgecrest and reality sets in. It’s too much for my psyche to handle. My partners tightrope their way along the narrow spine while I crawl on all fours like a kitten, or I simply give up and find a safer route. And, let the record show, there isn’t always a safer route. Sometimes the only option is to give up and go back where we came from, but no one, including me, wants to be the guy who ruined everyone’s trip by getting scared and quitting. I’ve never quite done that, but Little Duck Hawk could easily have been my first. Among my hiking friends, I’ll continue to pretend that I resent the government’s $20,000 threat, but deep in the secret places of my soul, I’m rejoicing that Uncle Sam has let me off the hook.
Little Duck Hawk Ridge (from Alum Cave Trail)

The name “Little Duck Hawk” isn’t the kind of title that strikes awe in the hearts of those who hear it. A name like Devil’s Razor or Deadman’s Wall would be appropriately fierce names, but, as it happens, Duck Hawk is also fitting because “duck hawk” is another name for a peregrine falcon.

These birds nested on this narrow ridge for many years (probably centuries or millennia) but disappeared sometime during the 1940s or 50s. According to Margaret Brown in The Wild East, a falcon nest on Little Duck Hawk Ridge was one of the last falcon nests in the eastern US as widespread human encroachment and the use of DDT as an insecticide nearly eliminated them from North America. During the 1970s several programs were working to save the falcons from extinction, and in 1984 several females were released on Greenbrier Pinnacle, and several more were released in the park over the next few years. None of these birds nested and bred in the park until 1997, when a nest with three falcon chicks was sighted in June on Little Duck Hawk Ridge. The falcons had returned from the brink of extinction, and today they continue to live and breed there.

The easiest way to see this rare species is to walk two miles up Alum Cave Trail to a rocky observation spot called Inspiration Point. There’s no sign at this spot, but it’s not hard to recognize. The first 1.5 miles of Alum Cave Trail leads to Arch Rock where the trail tunnels through a large rock on a set of rock stairs. About five minutes after Arch Rock, the trail crosses a modest creek called Styx Branch on a small, log footbridge. From this footbridge, the trail begins ascending away from the river for about 15 to 20 minutes at which point the trail makes a sharp right turn at Inspiration Point where there’s a small, open, rocky area surrounded by rhododendron and mountain laurel and providing nearly 360 degree views of Anakeesta Ridge, Sugarland Mountain, the Chimneys, and the entire upper Sugarlands valley. This spot gives you a lot of bang for your buck because the views are worth a lot more than the hour you’ve invested to walk here. It’s a great view of the Tennessee heart of the park.

As you stand at Inspiration Point looking out across the valley, directly to your right (west) the closest thing you’ll see is the rocky face of Little Duck Hawk Ridge. (Look closely and you’ll see a couple of holes, or windows, through the spine of the ridge.) Unless you go to a zoo and look at peregrine falcons in a cage, you are now in one of the two best spots for watching these survivors who, with a little help from some caring humans, have managed to survive the holocaust that nearly destroyed their species.

The other great viewing spot – the place where I saw my first peregrine falcons – is Big Duck Hawk Ridge. [To be continued]