In rite of spring, falcons return to Acadia

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San Juan Capistrano has its swallows, while the Alsace region of France is partial to the white stork.

On Mount Desert Island, the bird that most symbolizes the advent of spring is the peregrine falcon.

Nevermind the weather. Sunday officially was the first day of spring, and though temperatures haven’t much gotten up above the 40s (Fahrenheit) it has been feeling rather spring-like in much of Maine for the past month or so.

Falcons can be be found elsewhere in Maine this time of year, too, but nowhere is their presence felt more on MDI, where Acadia National Park shuts several trails down in spring and early-to-mid summer while the migratory raptors return to their cliffside scrapes (as their nesting areas are called) to reproduce. After the birds exhibit nesting behavior, the park closes down trails that pass near the scrapes in order to minimize the chance of failure caused by human disturbance.

Park officials announced last week that several trails near Jordan Cliffs, Valley Cove and the east face of Champlain Mountain have been closed because of such nesting behavior. The trails remain closed for the next five months, as long as the falcons are trying to reproduce and raise their young.

The birds were listed as endangered for 30 years by the federal government, from 1969 to 1999, and still are listed as endangered by the state of Maine.

According to Acadia officials, Falcons were first released in the park in the 1980s as part of efforts to reintroduce them to Maine. Since their numbers plummeted in the 1950s, the birds had become extinct east of the Mississippi River while their numbers in the American West had been reduced by 90 percent. Sensitivity to DDT and other pesticides had dramatically affected the species and many other birds, with the chemicals causing infertility and a thinning and breaking of eggshells during incubation.

Efforts to reintroduce the birds east of the Mississippi River, by any measure, have been wildly successful. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, after being reduced to a few hundred, there now are thousands of breeding pairs of peregrine falcons in North America.

Since the early 1990s, peregrine falcons successfully have fledged more than 125 chicks in Acadia. In 2015, the protection of these nesting territories in the park resulted in the fledging of seven chicks. The year before that, breeding pairs in Acadia produced at least nine chicks.

Peregrine falcons are known for their breath-taking aerial plunges which according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology can reach speeds of up to 200 mph. If the pairs breeding this spring in Acadia are successful, it will be the fifth year in a row that falcons have hatched, grown, and then taken flight in the national park.

To learn more about peregrine falcons, and watch their nesting and fledging activities from a safe distance, please visit www.nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338 for information on Acadia’s peregrine watch program, which begins in May at the Precipice Trail parking lot off Park Loop Road.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.