The fastest birds in the world and thousands of rock climbers crave some of the same dizzying heights: the sheer cliffs of North Carolina’s craggiest mountains.
Each year at about this time, the vastly outnumbered birds win.
Peregrine falcons can top 200 mph as they dive at prey, but were once brought low by the now-banned pesticide DDT. The last known breeding pair in North Carolina was seen in 1957. Then the birds virtually disappeared for more than two decades.
Now they’re back, in small but apparently stable numbers, and for that climbers get some credit. Each year they’re denied access to popular cliffs so peregrines can breed and rear their young in peace.
Breeding peregrines return to the same nesting sites, or aeries, on rocky ledges each year. They’re feisty and territorial falcons that attack their bird prey in mid-air, but can be spooked off their nests if they’re disturbed by climbers or hikers. Even five minutes off the nest can doom incubating eggs or chicks. With only 13 to 14 breeding pairs in the mountains, every chick counts.
“The main thing we want to see happen to be successful, is that they need to be on the nest as long as possible,” said Chris Kelly, an Asheville-based biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
The U.S. Forest Service closed nine rock faces to climbing on Jan. 15, when falcons start claiming their nesting sites, through Aug. 15. Popular cliffs such as Whiteside Mountain and Looking Glass Rock were among them. Most climbers take it in stride.
“One of the nice things about North Carolina is that we have a lot of climbing areas, so percentage-wise these climbing closures don’t close much climbing,” said Brian Payst, president of the Carolina Climbers Coalition, which helps spread word of the closures online and through social media.
“Does everyone love the closures? No, some people grumble about it. It’s really a temporary designation, but not a big deal in the scheme of things.”
In fact, Payst said, it’s a heady feeling to share a cliff face with rare birds of prey. He’s had curious peregrines check him out as he climbed and once watched a fledgling falcon learn to fly by chasing butterflies.
The birds’ comeback began in the early 1980s, after DDT had been banned and peregrines were protected under the Endangered Species Act. Ninety-two young birds were released into the wild in North Carolina, the seeds of what biologists hoped would be renewed numbers.
“Once the population was established, it was just a matter of how they did every year and then finding new pairs to keep an eye on,” Kelly said. Most local rock climbers, she said, respect the need not to disturb the birds.
Kelly recently analyzed state data for a research paper. She found that North Carolina’s peregrines compare well to national averages for the percentage of nesting sites that are occupied by birds and the number of eggs they lay. But only 55 percent of the birds successfully raise nestlings to be at least one month old, compared to a national average of 68 percent.
A total of 20 chicks were successfully reared in 2016, a high in recent years. Peregrines are still listed as endangered in North Carolina.
Some breeding pairs, nesting on sheer cliffs away from intrusion, raise young birds year after year, Kelly said. Others, including those in heavily-visited state parks, chronically fail.
When the National Park Service put up signs and started a social media campaign to protect peregrine nests at Devil’s Courthouse, which is reached by trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the birds came back almost immediately. But Chimney Rock State Park, where visitors can get very close to the cliff faces, has chronic nesting failures. Kelly said wildlife biologists are working with the park system on a plan to better protect peregrines.
Despite their sensitivity, peregrines have also shown enough resilience to thrive amid urban bustle. While the falcons are drawn to North Carolina’s rocky cliffs, Charlotte is among a number of cities where the birds have settled on bridges and skyscraper ledges.
A peregrine that local birders named Gladys spent winters in uptown Charlotte from 2006 to 2013. For three years beginning in 2013, a pair of falcons built nests and successfully reared young on a 40th floor balcony of uptown’s One Wells Fargo Center.