There Were Giants

Have you spent time outdoors recently? Have you managed to pull yourself away from those ubiquitous screens? I have a tough time doing that myself sometimes.

Things are changing, slowly but surely. A birdsong groundswell is underway, and “the season of singing has come.” We’re transitioning from winter’s relative silence to spring’s louder and lustier singing and calling. Soon enough, the switch will be thrown again, marking the beginning of another season: spring.

Signs of Change

There are other signs of change, too. Per Joy, an active member of the Birding Virginia Facebook Group, American Goldfinches are beginning to molt and are “transitioning to their summer wardrobes.” American Robins’ songs are becoming louder, longer, and more elaborate. Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration maps are popping up everywhere (northward migrating Ruby-throats will begin arriving along the U.S. Gulf Coast in early March). And a few of the 600-some-odd Virginia insects, a major avian food source, are beginning to emerge (and just in time).

I’ve been busy observing Bufflehead ducks like this one in the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, VA.

Female Bufflehead duck foraging in the Elizabeth River
Female Bufflehead duck foraging

I’ve noticed increased courtship behavior such as head-bobbing and fly-overs (the male Bufflehead flies over the female and lands right in front of her). I’ve also observed a copulation display or two.

And then there are scattered reports of American Woodcocks, early spring migrants, “peenting“—a vocal sound they produce during their courtship displays. If you’ve never witnessed a woodcock courtship flight, or “sky dance,” you’re missing out. It’s a real feast for the eyes and ears. Around dusk, or even at dawn, visit a cemetery, a power line corridor, a forest clearing, or a field near some woods. And be still, be quiet, and wait.

There Were Giants

There were giants. We just lost a giant in the world of poetry, Mary Oliver. If you haven’t done so already, kindly read my tribute to her. We also just lost a giant in the world of birding and bird conservation, Dr. Tom Cade. He was the driving force behind the recovery of the federally endangered Peregrine Falcon.

Dr. Tom Cade with a young Gyrfalcon
Dr. Tom Cade with a young Gyrfalcon

Much like the Osprey, the Peregrine Falcon experienced significant population declines in the mid-20th century largely due to the widespread use of DDT. The residual effects of the pesticide’s use caused eggshell thinning—and often, crushing—dramatically reducing the species’ reproductive rates. Its numbers plummeted as a result, and its extinction as a nesting species in the U.S. seemed inevitable. By the late 1960s, the Peregrine Falcon had been extirpated from the eastern U.S., and only about 40 mating pairs remained in the West.

Saving the Peregrine Falcon

Dr. Cade, an ornithologist and experienced falconer, who was intimately familiar with and passionate about the species, understood what was happening. He went to work to ban DDT, and he went to work to save the Peregrine. He would also go on to cofound the Peregrine Fund—an organization that has been responsible for the recovery of not only the Peregrine Falcon but also many other endangered raptor species, including the iconic California Condor. If I may, here’s another photo of then newly released “J4” (see “Condor Reintroduction”).

Newly-released California Condor in flight
 California Condor

In 1970, Dr. Cade and others started a successful captive breeding program at Cornell University in New York. That program served as a model for future programs like the Peregrine Fund’s Condor Reintroduction Project. Birds that hatched and were raised at Cornell in a specially built breeding barn with 3-story-high stalls were later released into the wild. Good numbers of those birds in the now relatively chemical-free environment went on to mate and produce young. And the Peregrine population recovered (owing in large part to Dr. Cade’s vision and hard work). According to Tim Gallagher in “Mission Accomplished,” “[Dr. Cade, his staff, and volunteers had] a profound passion for these birds and an inability to imagine a world without [them]. What they accomplished was one of the greatest successes in the field of endangered species management.”

Peregrine Falcons Rebound

Now the falcons can be found—mainly along the northern U.S. coasts—nesting everywhere from abandoned Bald Eagle nests and channel markers to transmission towers, bridges, and building ledges.

Peregrine Falcon perched
Peregrine Falcon

It’s notable that they’re thriving in urban environments. Tall buildings (“steel cliffs“) are reminiscent of their natural home, rock cliffs, and the Peregrine’s favorite food, the Rock Pigeon, can be found in urban areas in abundance. Peregrines can also be found throughout the U.S. during migration and along the southern U.S. coasts during the winter.

I had the good fortune to see a wintering bird a few weeks ago at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, VA, an Elizabeth River Project restoration site now part of the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail Coastal Region trail system. Peregrines prefer wide-open spaces, so it was no surprise to me to find one there. This urban oasis has wide-open space in abundance.

While scouting in preparation for a bird walk I’d be leading, a Peregrine powered through the airspace only feet above my head. I was just able to make out its “sideburns” ( its “mustache” to some), an important field mark. It was a breathtaking moment. But then, every Peregrine sighting is a breathtaking moment.

Peregrine Falcon in flight
Peregrine Falcon

Remembering Dr. Cade

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Cade, The Peregrine Fund, and the Peregrine Falcon, please read this wonderful biographical sketch and tribute to him. If you’d like to learn more about Peregrines adapting to city life, please visit Lawrence Peregrines. There, you’ll learn about Peregrines nesting in the Lawrence, MA Ayer Mill Clock Tower.

Mary Oliver has been recognized for writing “brilliantly crafted poems.” But consider this poetic tribute to Dr. Cade, written by his colleague, Dr. Munir Virani: “Rest in peace Tom, the hill is bereft for now, the snowflakes falling gently on the sage grass. A deafening silence blankets the Treasure Valley. . .except for the choir of every Peregrine Falcon whispering your name! Thank you my friend for changing this world.” Dr. Cade did change this world. Dr. Cade was a giant.

Photo credit: Many thanks to wildlife photographer Craig Gibson for the perched Peregrine shot and to wildlife photographer Kate Davis for permission to use her photos of Dr. Cade and the Peregrine in flight.

And This Just In

As a Bufflehead duck was featured above (and another is featured below), I thought I’d reprise what I wrote near the end of my earlier blog post, “Back to Basics“: “Some of you may have heard of ‘Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds‘ radio show. Ray Brown is an institution in New England. Consider listening to his recent radio show on the Bufflehead duck. You’ll get a kick out of the show and may get a bigger kick out of Ray. He begins talking about the duck 8 minutes in.” Bufflehead ducks, like Peregrines, winter here in Virginia.

Female Bufflehead duck stretching in the Elizabeth River
Female Bufflehead duck stretching

Quip, Question, Quote

Finally, in response to my “Why Do You Bird” survey, Maeve, another Birding Virginia Facebook Group member, wrote the following: “[Birding] does more for the soul than anyone can ever put into words.” Untold millions would agree.



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