Out There: Take to the Sky

Penny Adler-Colvin of the Mohonk Preserve trains volunteers to observe peregrine falcons nesting on the ridgeline in the distance. Photo by B. Cronin

Penny Adler-Colvin of the Mohonk Preserve trains volunteers to observe peregrine falcons nesting on the ridgeline in the distance. (Photo by B. Cronin)

It’s possible that DDT would have helped curb the rampant spongy moth infestations occurring in the Shawangunk Mountains in the late 1950s, but Daniel Smiley wouldn’t have it.

Smiley, who grew up on the grounds of the Mohonk Mountain House, recorded his observations about everything he saw in the ’Gunks on thousands of index cards. He knew more than anyone that the spongy moth population was growing, but he also suspected that the potent insecticide would affect the ecosystem in ways that weren’t yet known. 

The good news is that he was able to stop DDT from being deployed in the ’Gunks; the bad news is that he was right about the unknown effects. As Rachel Carson would explain in her 1962 classic Silent Spring, DDT had a disastrous effect on the bird population. Several species of birds were vanishing from the American landscape entirely, including Smiley’s beloved peregrine falcons, which came to the cliffs of what is now the Mohonk Preserve every spring to nest. 

Smiley had been “banding” them since the 1920s; attaching marked bands to their legs which helped scientists track their migratory patterns at a time when not much was known about them. 

DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, but for the peregrine falcon it was feared to be too late. The peregrines of the ’Gunks — and for that matter, everywhere east of the Mississippi — were gone. Scientists and amateurs like Smiley worked together in New Paltz and Ithaca to breed the birds in captivity, which had never been done before. They released them to save the species from extinction, but the cliffs of the Mohonk Preserve remained silent.

Then, in 1998, the peregrines returned to Mohonk to reclaim their ancestral nesting grounds, and have returned nearly every spring since. 

Smiley died in 1989 but his 15,000 index cards were digitized for the scientific community. A new generation of “citizen scientists” is building on his legacy at Mohonk — although Gretchen Reed and Julia Solomon of the Mohonk Preserve prefer the term “community science” — partly because you don’t need to be a citizen to take part, and partly because it reflects conservation as a community-based effort.

Reed and Solomon explained this on an unseasonably warm April morning as we stood behind their co-worker Penny Adler-Colvin, who was peering through a spotting scope at the nearly 3-mile-long cliff known as The Trapps. She was looking for peregrines, but at the moment all she saw was a member of another daring species associated with the ’Gunks: a rock climber. 

Climbers and peregrines flock to the Shawangunks for the same reason: the jagged, towering cliffs, which are an ideal spot to set up eyries, or nests. Peregrines are fiercely territorial and prefer to not have intruders near their eyries, and climbers prefer not to have screaming birds dive-bomb them at 200 mph.

The answer to this conflict is to close off the cliff face during nesting season, which runs from February to August. At the beginning of the nesting season at Mohonk, community scientists are deployed. About 20 spotters take turns observing the falcons as they search for nesting spots. Because the falcons are so territorial, only three pairs typically settle in the cliffs for a season. 

Once the spotters have identified the nesting locations, the Preserve can reopen many climbing routes while giving the falcons a wide berth. The spotters continue to watch the falcons and upload observations at bit.ly/peregrine-watch. (One highlight: at 10 a.m. on March 5, a peregrine was observed dive-bombing a bald eagle.)

Unlike in years past, the Preserve takes a hands-off approach to the falcons. It doesn’t band the birds or install artificial nests to protect the eggs and chicks from predators. That makes it hard to determine if the same three pairs of falcons return to the ’Gunks, or where they live during the rest of the year. But it does allow the birds to simply be birds, as free from human interference as possible, as it was in the Shawangunks for thousands of years.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the peregrines,” said Adler-Colvin. “But what I like even better is when I’m training volunteers, and they haven’t seen a peregrine before, and they squeal with excitement. They’re so happy to be part of the process.”

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