Pennsylvania-born falcons tracked from space

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HARRISBURG, Pa. – Satellite technology is being used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to track the dispersal and migration flights of peregrine falcons born and reared earlier this year on buildings in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

Two young falcons, one male and one female, from each city were fitted with satellite transmitter backpacks that are sending out daily transmissions to receiving equipment on weather satellites orbiting earth operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Satellite help. When locations are plotted by the satellites using Service Argos receivers, they are transmitted to stations back on earth, and eventually to the Canadian Peregrine Foundation, which forwards information via e-mail to the Game Commission.

The peregrine locations will be plotted on digital maps and regularly loaded onto the agency’s Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us. To access the Peregrine Falcon Section, click on “Wildlife,” then “Peregrine Falcon.”

The maps will be updated frequently and will be accompanied by brief journal-like reports focusing on falcon movements.

“We have an unprecedented chance to follow the lives of these young peregrine falcons as they explore Pennsylvania, other states, and, eventually, other countries,” explained Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross.

Public enjoyment. “This study has the potential to shed more light on peregrine movements than we’ve been able to compile from field study over the past 100 years.

“Just as exciting is the opportunity to involve the public in this unfolding drama. It is our chance to familiarize Pennsylvanians with a state endangered species and the steps wildlife managers are taking to ensure the bird’s future is brighter than its past.”

The young falcons are expected to continually expand their travels in coming weeks. Right now, the Pittsburgh falcons, which are about three weeks older than the Harrisburg falcons, are flying up to 40 miles away from their nest box on the Gulf Tower.

The Harrisburg falcons have traveled up to 12 miles away from their nest box on the Rachel Carson State Office Building.

Tracking movement. The birds are expected to migrate south this fall to winter in the Caribbean, or Central or South America.

“Recent telemetry has shown that the Pittsburgh male falcon is really roaming,” said Dan Brauning, game commission biologist.

“He’s been to Armstrong County several times and he’s also visited Beaver, southern Allegheny and Washington counties. The younger Harrisburg falcons aren’t quite as adventurous yet. They’ve been to City Island on the Susquehanna River, the Hummelstown area and the Mechanicsburg area.”

The Game Commission began using satellite telemetry a year ago when transmitters were placed on migrating tundra swans. Unfortunately, all four swans were lost to natural causes during migration.

This past winter, five more swans were fitted with telemetry collars. Their movements also can be followed on the Web site.

Banded birds. Prior to the use of satellite telemetry, wildlife managers were limited to placing bands on birds and hoping someone saw the bird and recorded its band number after it reached its migration destination.

Otherwise, the only other way researchers learned about the movements of banded birds was when someone reported finding a dead one.

Radio telemetry – using radio frequency transmitters and antennas to follow animal movements – has been used by game commission biologists and other wildlife researchers for years, but only when animals are expected to remain in a limited geographic area.

Satellite telemetry allows biologists to follow the more wide-ranging and migratory movements of birds. The 18-gram transmitter, attached with a neoprene harness, provides data for more than a year.

“If the birds carry these transmitters for two years, we’ll have two years of migration data on each bird, as well as information on the territories they establish as adults,” Brauning said.

“We also are hopeful the study birds will shed further light on the interactions between falcons with established territories and those looking to establish a territory. In some cases, there already have been life-and-death fights for the urbanized territories peregrines now prefer.

“We’re watching and waiting for peregrines to return to their historic nesting cliffs. When that happens, we’ll know we’re heading down the home stretch in Pennsylvania’s peregrine falcon recovery program.”

Endangered species. Although peregrines were never really common in Pennsylvania, they historically nested at as many as 44 sites, mostly on cliffs. Some of their former nesting areas included cliffs near Dauphin, Huntingdon, Lewistown, Hyner, Palmerton and other riverside communities. Currently, peregrines have 10 known nests in the state.

Peregrine falcons are strong fliers that hunt on the wing, diving from nose-bleed heights at speeds up to 200 miles per hour to snatch flying blue jays, flickers, starlings, pigeons and other like prey. The birds weigh up to two pounds and females are larger than males.

Also known as the “duck hawk,” peregrines did not nest in the Commonwealth from the late 1950s until 1987. Their population plummeted as a result of poisoning caused by DDT, which was banned in America in 1972.

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