This is Part IV of Relocated. Don't miss: Part I. Intro: Off-Planet Part II. Toppled Tower Part III. Duck Hawks and Beach Chickens
Part IV: A Savior at Seaview
It was late in 2017 when Kathy Clark was anxiously pouring over aerial imagery of Galloway Township, scanning repeatedly, over and over again just hoping that something, anything, would rise up out of the miles of empty marsh and pine lands that blanket the area and grab her attention.
The clock was ticking and things were starting to feel frustratingly hopeless.
But then suddenly, there it was: the water tower. And rising up right next to it, a large chimney or smokestack of some sort.
She marked the location carefully but hesitantly as she began to measure the distance, concerned it was simply too far to work.
It was 2.3 miles. That is pushing well beyond the outer boundary of a peregrine falcon’s territory. But with few other options, she determined to check the site out right away.
Arriving at the sprawling Seaview Golf Club in Galloway, Kathy and Mike Bisignano could see the rounded, stained top of the tower’s massive dome rising high above the pines. Winding carefully through the parking lots and small access roads designed more for pedestrians and golf carts than her state-issued pickup truck, she arrived at the complex’s nerve center and parked quietly out back.
She and Mike scanned and surveyed the area carefully, circling the base of the tower, surrounded by the banks of AC units, garages, and tool sheds which keep the hotel humming.
A few Seaview staff occasionally meandered through, pouring out the back of the kitchens on break, or making their way to and from the garages. Someone noticed Kathy’s binoculars and approached her and Mike.
“Hey,” he called out with a hushed voice and sly smile. “Are you two looking for the falcons?”
Kathy’s heart must have skipped two beats.
Pierre and Natasha were undoubtedly experienced enough peregrines. As a pair, they had nested successfully at the historic BRIG hacking tower along Wildlife Drive for four seasons, from 2014 to 2017. They owned that spot because they had earned their place there.
Pierre had been at BRIG the longest. Born himself at another historic peregrine recovery site, the SEDG tower behind Island Beach State Park, he was banded 12/AC as a tiny nestling. After he fledged from the SEDG tower, no one knew what had happened to him until he suddenly landed at the BRIG tower three years later in 2013.
When Pierre first arrived, BRIG was controlled by a powerful female banded Y/8 who had been nesting there successfully for the three years since Pierre was born at SEDG. While the young, inexperienced Pierre was no match for such a matriarch, fate would have it that, that same year, Y/8’s legendary mate N/2 had died tragically at the ripe old age of 12. Coincidentally, N/2 himself was born at that same SEDG tower as Pierre, a full decade earlier in the year 2000.
Pierre had big talons to fill if he was going to stay at the BRIG tower. N/2 had been a notoriously bold, powerful, and productive male falcon; legendary for sitting on the BRIG tower with Kathy each year as she banded his babies. Absolutely fearless.
Perhaps it was desperation, Pierre’s prowess, or maybe his luck, but the powerful, recently widowed Y/8 accepted the inexperienced Pierre into her igloo, and together they began the ill fated 2014 season at the BRIG tower.
In February, a great horned owl took control of their igloo nest box and had to be forcibly removed, dangerously close to the sensitive nesting period. In March, Y/8 was observed to be suffering a severe facial injury. In May, the pair’s single, cold egg failed to hatch. And by the fall, Y/8 had vanished completely. She was never seen again.
But Pierre persisted at BRIG throughout the long winter, and would soon meet a new, mysterious female in the spring of 2014.
Most peregrine falcon in New Jersey are banded on both legs. The right leg carries the traditional federal-issued band, with a long numeric code engraved on it (only usefully readable when you have a bird in hand, as with a trapping, injury, or death). The left leg gets a brightly colored band with a simpler code which is easier to read and helps identify falcons in the field.
This new female stood out because she was missing her colorful bling; she had only a federal band on her right leg. She had received this band in September, 2011, not at a nest, but when she was randomly trapped by the Cape May Raptor Banding Project as a young, second year peregrine. Since 1967, the CMRBP has been trapping any raptor they can for a few weeks in Cape May during the fall migration, as a way of taking a broad census of the overall population. They caught her by chance. No one knows where she is actually from, but she was banded 1687-21126, and she became known as Natasha.
Over the next few years Pierre and Natasha would grow together to become the lord and lady of the historic BRIG hacking tower, successfully fledging young falcons each season, and continuing the great traditions of the recovery at the same tower where it all began back in 1980.
They were well on their way to becoming two of New Jersey’s most storied, experienced, productive peregrine. The sky was the limit for these two.
Until the spring of 2018 when they arrived to find something, of all the challenges peregrine face when nesting each year, I’m sure they simply never expected: that their home at the BRIG tower was no longer there.
“Yes, we’re looking for falcons,” Kathy answered that gentleman on her first visit to Seaview. “You seen any around?”
I’m sure it was difficult for Kathy to contain her anxious enthusiasm. Her storied career as a raptor biologist dates all the way back to 1985; back to the time when New Jersey had only a single pair of bald eagles and a few of the first successfully hacked peregrine nests. For three decades she has overseen these recoveries, driving them relentlessly and fearlessly to the amazing place we find them today: over 250 pairs of eagles and 40 pairs of falcons in New Jersey alone.
She has swam oceans of joy and tragedy in the process, and so has earned that cool, calm, open mindedness that comes from low expectations born of the wisdom of experience, and from having seen just about everything.
Still, this was undeniably hopeful, and exciting. The Seaview water tower was 2.3 miles from the soon to be demolished BRIG tower. It is far enough away to be outside Pierre and Natasha’s territory, yet close enough to the border that if the Seaview staff were seeing peregrine, it was probably them. An experienced pair like Pierre and Natasha wouldn’t be so foolish as to let any other falcons get too comfortable so close to the BRIG tower.
This was all Kathy needed, so things escalated quickly. Kathy would meet Karl Schurr from Seaview that same afternoon and straight out pitch him the idea of installing an igloo somewhere on the property to help protect these two amazing falcons who were about to become homeless.
Since Karl and much of the staff at Seaview had been quietly enjoying the peregrines’ visits to the water tower already, he was intrigued. He took her straight to a fantastic roof above the maintenance area… just a few small flights of stairs to an attic, through a door, a small ladder climb, and finally, an enclosed roof area that couldn’t have been more perfect. While small, it was flat, well protected, surrounded on all four sides by a railing which the young could use to fledge from. A big chimney on one side, and the water tower within view on the other, would allow the parents both to hunt and to rest without ever taking their eye off the igloo or their young. The water tower would be a perfect target for their fledges’ very first flights; a modest goal, but a thrilling achievement for any peregrine.
Kathy could not believe the luck of Pierre and Natasha, nor her own; as lucky as Pierre was when he happened to stumble upon the desperate, recently widowed female Y/8 at the historic BRIG tower back in 2013.
This just might work. An agreement was finalized with a cooperative, compassionate Seaview, and on a cool clear morning in November of 2017, Kathy and Mike installed a brand new igloo on the roof at the Seaview Golf Club, then headed straight over to BRIG to remove the old one.
A week later, the historic BRIG tower was demolished.
Now there was nothing to do but wait; and hope that Pierre and Natasha would find the new igloo provided by their saviors at Seaview.
And that they would accept, and agree, to being relocated.
If you are not an email follower, join us so you don’t miss Part V of this special story.
My second favorite gallery piece of all time featuring nestling peregrine is “Angery” featuring Natasha & Pierre’s brood from 2016. Want to know what my first favorite is? It is “Kids on Grass” from 2019 and it is the featured artwork for the month of April in The 2021 Coastal Wildlife Calendar from The Little Egg Foundation.
Your donation to Little Egg will support the NestStory software I invented and is now being used freely by biologists around the world to care for the data they collect about endangered species; doing more with it and preserving it securely for the future.
In fact, all of the rich biographical data about the history of the nesting falcons at BRIG from this post is contained in NestStory. But it is not in there just to tell stories; it is there so that every observation, every banding, every success, every tragedy… every bit of data can be amplified and its impact multiplied to help more animals both now and in the future.
And stay tuned for Part V.