At 7:00 a.m. Thursday morning, for the 10th straight day, Pete Fullbrandt began his latest 13 hour shift protecting peregrine falcons.
Like every other shift so far, Fullbrandt pulled up in his truck in a south Edmonton parking lot, unloaded his lawn chair and field glasses. He sat down and began staring across the street at the Weber Building.
He and several other volunteers are watching the family of falcons that call the building home.
“We’re doing what we call a fledge watch,” said Fullbrandt who describes the work as, “mostly boredom but there is a lot of reward in it. Maybe not as much as you’d like but there is a lot of reward in it, too.”
Every year, chicks hatch and are ready to fly about 40 days later. But with peregrines there are challenges.
They are the fastest birds in the world and can reach speeds of nearly 400 kilometers per hour while diving.
The first flight,says Fullbrandt, “is like giving a 16-year-old a Ferrari.”
It’s not like the chicks fall to their deaths but sometimes they can’t fly well enough to return to their nest. When the nest is atop a 15 story building next to a busy Calgary Trail, being stranded is a death sentence.
Fullbrandt and other fledge watchers sit, watch and are ready to help.
“What we do is we come out and make sure if they do come to the ground, we can rescue them so they don’t go run out into traffic.”
So far the year, the volunteers have raced across the street, twice.
“They came down way too low,” said Fullbrandt. ‘They couldn’t fly up. So they’re stranded on the ground. If they’re stranded on the ground, they either get run over by traffic or a predator gets them.”
With peregrines, it’s a bigger concern than with most other animals. They’re a threatened species. Forty years ago there was just one peregrine falcon left in Alberta. Conservation efforts have seen the bird’s numbers recover. The last formal count from 2013 estimates there are 68 nesting pairs in the province.
Those numbers are still low which means the fledge watchers are serious about what they do. Knowing they’re making a difference makes it easier to sit for hours on end in a parking lot just watching a building.
Melissa Dergousoff is a University of Alberta grad student helping with the fledge watch efforts and said, “It feels really special. The people here are really passionate about what they do, so to be able to contribute to those conservation efforts is pretty awesome.”
Fullbrandt echoes those sentiments.
“They’re trying to bring them back so there’s enough falcons in the wild. So I’m here just to help them do that.”
Falconer and wildlife consultant Steve Schwartze says the work helps. There are several nests in Alberta cities and the skyscrapers are attractive to the falcons because they’re high up and there are plenty of pigeons around for food.
However, the air currents between the buildings make it difficult to learn to fly. Some of the birds crash into the shiny, clear windows of the skyscrapers and of course, traffic is a problem.
“We don’t know for certain, but we suspect from the number of birds we pick up on the ground that the mortality rate in the cities is higher than it is in wild places,” Schwartze said.
Schwartze also looks after a place called a “hack.”
It’s just outside Entwistle and it’s where all the rescued city falcons go. The two from the Weber Centre arrived a few days ago and are now flying with the other falcons.
Schwartze makes sure there’s food available while the young birds learn what it takes to be a falcon.
“When they come out here, they can be just like a kid learning to ride a bike. They can be wobbly and awkward and crash a few times. Usually they can make it back to the food source without too much trouble.”
When they’re ready, they hunt on their own in the wild, perhaps giving their own chicks more of a chance.
For birds left in the city, volunteers like Fullbrandt will continue to keep watch. It can be boring work just staring at a building but Fullbrandt knows it’s worth it.
“Pretty successful in bringing them back and hopefully we’ll keep it going.”