Historic Peregrine Falcon Nesting In San Diego's Backcountry First Witnessed By Non-Profit Climbing Organization

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San Diego, California, May 15, 2009 – The peregrine falcon, once a federally listed endangered species, has made a comeback!

Sightings of peregrine falcons are common along the San Diego coastline, but for the first time ever, peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus anatum) have been documented nesting in the Cleveland National Forest.

Jeff Brown, Director of Allied Climbers of San Diego, a California Non-Profit, climbs at Corte Madera during months the area can be safely used—fall, winter, and spring. Early spring also means nesting time for prairie falcons at Corte Madera. But this year, he and his wife, Keli Balo, witnessed typical peregrine falcon bullying of prairie falcons result in actual nesting of the peregrines.

“Prairie falcons nest at Corte Madera regularly, but peregrines nesting, that’s historical!” Brown said. “We work with the Cleveland National Forest to establish advisory buffers for the prairie falcons, so we worked with them on closures for the peregrines—official closures are currently still the norm for peregrine falcons because they were once endangered.”

According to Brown, “Most local climbers know about the prairie falcons and know where not to climb when the birds are nesting. Published advisory buffer zones for the falcons are a good thing; it helps new and visiting climbers understand where the birds are nesting, that climbing should take place elsewhere on the cliff faces. What’s incredible about this year is that Forest Service biologists have confirmed that peregrine falcons have driven the prairie falcons out and established nesting themselves!”

Brown has seen peregrines hunt at Corte Madera in the past, but never nest.

“The prairie falcons show up every year like clockwork,” Brown said. “They set up nesting at a spot we call Paul Bunyon Wall. Then, during the day while climbing, we see peregrines fly in to hunt for a while. They grab swallows right out of the air! After that, they seem to bully the prairie falcons for a while, and then they fly off. The next time we go out we might see them, might not. We’ve always seen the prairie falcons, they stay to nest.”

Brown and his wife Keli climb at amazing places around the country, but they rate Corte Madera in San Diego County being as good as any they’ve climbed.

Brown said Corte Madera is one of three very large and very valuable climbing cliffs on the Cleveland National Forest. The only comparable climbing in Southern California is Tahquitz Rock in Idyllwild, California—three hours from San Diego. But that is a late spring to early fall location, making Corte Madera, Eagle Peak, and El Cajon Mountain important for all of Southern California. They are approximately five-hundred feet tall with very high quality rock—Yosemite National Park quality. They also provide high exposure, much desired by climbers. But they can only routinely be used from November till May. The formations face south, making them dangerous to access or climb on during increased—to soaring—back country temperatures from late May through October.

This year, Brown and his wife watched the prairie falcons come in as usual. Brown alerted the Forest Service, and the Allied Climbers worked with the Cleveland National Forest to establish and promote buffer zone advisories to educate the public. The information was linked to the advisories on the Forest Service’s Website through the climbers’ Website and monthly newsletter.

What is different this year is that instead of just hunting, the peregrines established a nest near where a significant amount of climbing activity was taking place. Jeff says the Forest Service biologists weren’t able to do much early monitoring, but when they finally did, they saw the peregrines in April and determined their behavior indicated something different than just hunting.

According to Brown, “Those guys have a lot on their plate… that they didn’t see the peregrines is no one’s fault. What people should focus on is the historic nature of this event. Peregrine falcons have been identified as RECOVERED by the California Department of Fish and Game. In fact, the DFG is processing the species for ‘delisting’ from the State’s endangered species list. That’s how much these magnificent birds have recovered. Peregrine falcon numbers have been increasing steadily. That they have nested inland on the Cleveland National Forest underscores the resilience of the species. That resilience was in large part aided by climbers.”

In the early years, it was often men like Dr. Rob Ramey, a climber, field biologist and conservation geneticist, who carried peregrine chicks hatched in captivity to peregrine nests. He and others replaced live chicks with eggs whose shells had been thinned by DDT. The eggs would be taken back for incubation, removing the danger of being crushed under the weight of the adult falcons.

The Allied Climbers is a local environmentally responsible membership-based climbers advocacy organization that has been working closely with the Cleveland National Forest to establish advisory buffer zones for prairie falcons (a cousin of the peregrine, but never threatened or endangered), and active golden eagle nests.

Brown feels strongly that, “It’s important to partner with local land managers—local Forest, BLM, City of San Diego, City of Poway, etc.—to help get the word out about nesting raptors, to help with trail projects, clean ups and the like. They need our help, they can’t do it all.”

When asked about the new closure order established by the Cleveland National Forest for the peregrines, Brown said:

“The closure area is larger than what is used at other Forests of the R5 Forest Region, like at El Dorado National Forest which also has peregrines and climbing. We’re working with the Forest Service to help them better understand the detailed topography of the climbing area so they get a better feel for what is actually needed. We have a good rapport with the District Ranger, Owen Martin. Owen has been great to work with. I know Owen, and I know he doesn’t like to unnecessarily restrict public access. But this year surprised everyone. The Forest Service had to hurry up and get something in place. So I think it’s okay for now.

Peregrine falcons are pretty acceptant of humans and routinely nest in the San Diego coastal area. A pair nests at Torrey Pines State Park every year. Torrey Pines visitors photograph them often. Park officials even give people directions to the nest. Falcons likely do not discern the difference between photographers and climbers when judging distances. The Park doesn’t use buffers. If climbing took place they would need to restrict it near the nest, but that’s all, only right near the nest. The key is to work together to identify where the birds finally establish nesting for a given season and then define reasonable buffers on either side of the nest.

I also think there is a big picture to keep in mind. If land managers don’t restrict excessively large areas, climbers and others will develop more trust in their land managers, they’ll trust that managers aren’t acting as extremists. Increasing trust is important. The more we work together to increase trust, the more likely climbers and other recreational users—hunters, fishers, off-roaders, hikers, mountain bikers, you name it—will step up and contact their local land manager when they think they see nesting raptors. That would be a good thing for all involved, recreational users and raptors alike. Anything else is counterproductive.

As for the peregrine’s nesting at Corte Madera—a first in our local Cleveland National Forest—I feel privileged to have witnessed history in the making, it’s awesome!”

To find out more about climbing in the San Diego region—and its healthful benefits for all—contact Jeff Brown at the above number and visit ACSD’s website at www.alliedclimbers.org Photographs of ACSD climbers, climbing areas, and volunteer work projects are in “Members in Action” “Volunteer” and “Gallery.” Members of the Allied Climbers of San Diego are available for interviews.