They’re learning to fly, now that they’ve got wings.
Nearly a dozen weeks-old fledgling peregrine falcon eyasses took to the air for the first time last week.
And they’re being watched like – well, like falcons.
“They’re just so majestic,” Michelle Tulett-Sosa said.
The Amherst resident was among about a half-dozen falcon watchers at the Central Terminal, where a family of two adult falcons were providing flight school for their three offspring from their high-up perch on the clock tower.
“These birds are rare. You won’t see them in your backyards,” she said.
Other falcon watchers were equally impressed.
“They’re an endangered species in New York, and we’re blessed in Buffalo Niagara to have the highest concentration of peregrine falcons in New York State,” said Carl Skompinski of Williamsville.
While the pair of female juvenile falcons – named Virginia and Billy – and the male, Edward, practiced their moves on the city’s East Side, other young falcons also were taking to wing across the area.
They were leaving their nests for the first time at the Statler Towers in Niagara Square, the MacKay Tower at the University at Buffalo, both Grand Island Bridges and in the gorge below Niagara Falls.
“Right now, it is falcon watch,” said Marianne Hites, a wildlife rehabilitator with the Messinger Woods volunteer wildlife rehabilitation center in the Town of Holland. “These birds are all starting to fledge, if they haven’t already.”
It’s been a busy spring for Buffalo Niagara’s falcon population.
Earlier this month, experts from the state Department of Environmental Conservation tagged the newest falcons, including a trio at UB hatched from the recent union of father Yankee with his new mate, Dixie.
Dixie joined Yankee at MacKay Tower in April, a month after his former partner, BB, was removed by the DEC because she was repeatedly dive-bombing people and other animals on South Campus.
Peregrines, often dubbed “the fastest animals on the planet,” can travel at speeds of more than 200 mph.
BB remains in protective captivity, pending possible future release to the wild. That, however, is still under review, according to Mark Kandel, a wildlife biologist with the state DEC.
While peregrine falcons are territorial by nature, with females tending to be more protective of the nest, state officials decided something had to be done with BB.
“She was extremely aggressive,” Kandel said. “What was unusual about her was that she was going after people on the ground – people and pets. Generally, they’re not viewed as a threat.”
In May, Dixie’s union with Yankee brought forth two females, Bailey and MacKay, as well as a male, Winspear.
And they might be the most viewed falcons of all in Buffalo Niagara, thanks to the university’s “Falcon Cam,” which captures their movements with live streaming video on the Internet. Viewers visiting the “Falcon Cam” – at www.buffalo.edu/falconcam.html – can watch the falcon family at any time of the day or night.
In recent days, the young birds have been observed preening and extending their wings, likely to plunge into the air at any time.
“They’ll be ready to start fledging any day now,” Kandel said of UB’s birds and four others in a nest at downtown’s Statler City.
And on the north Grand Island Bridge, George is expected to take his turn soon, as well.
It’s the next step in their rapid development toward adulthood.
Since the young were hatched last month, their parents have hunted prey – smaller birds, usually – and returned with their food to the nest. At first, the parents tore the prey into small pieces for their offspring. As each week has passed since their hatching, the bite size of their food has increased.
Like many species, sibling rivalry is common in the nest.
“They get along, but they start developing a hierarchy,” said Kandel, explaining that the runt of the litter frequently gets less food. “They fight over food. They’re not polite to each other. They don’t think in human terms. They’re going to get theirs first.”
Then, as fledging approaches, parents coax their offspring, all the while keeping a watchful eye.
Like at the Central Terminal this week when one of the young birds tried out his wings, only to crash into a nearby flagpole. It quickly grasped the ropes used to hoist the flag while its parents flew around nearby squawking loudly, as if to coach the young bird, according to Tulett-Sosa, who witnessed it.
It’s part of the reason Tulett-Sosa, Skompinski and Joyce Miller of Rochester have been on hand at the terminal every day this week.
If one of the birds runs into trouble, like a fall or crash-landing, they’re there to assist the falcon family – and, by extension, the DEC – just as much as to watch the raptor’s majesty.
“They don’t have their wings under them, so to speak,” Skompinski said. “We’re another set of eyes and ears in the field.
“We’re trying to do our part to make sure if we have four fledglings in a nest that we have four fledglings going out on their own.”
And, once they get flying under their wings, independence soon follows.
“They go from six weeks of total dependence to independent,” Kandel said. “First, they have to develop their flight skills.”
The eyasses will remain in the nest with mom and dad, where they’ll be reared for just another month or two before being evicted. Many times, the offspring are chased off to find their own pad and a mate.
“The parents won’t tolerate them back,” Kandel said.
Half of the young falcons won’t make it past their first year of life because of an accident, an injury or an inability to effectively hunt. Of those who survive, most wind up nesting with a partner “hundreds of miles from home,” Kandel said.
Of the falcon parents in Buffalo Niagara, one settled here from Toledo, Ohio. Another came from Maine.
As for the pair at the Central Terminal – the male, Diamante, and female, Gleig – theirs is an international romance. Diamante was born under the watchful eyes of Rochester’s Peregrine Falcon Project in a nest on the Kodak Office Tower in 2008. Gleig is a native of Hamilton, Ont.
Both started occupying the terminal’s nest last year, having deposed the existing falcon residents there – Stash and Stella – according to Tulett-Sosa.
Don’t tell the territory-hungry falcons, but there’s room for everyone as these birds continue clawing their way back from a near eradication resulting from the use of DDT-laced pesticides a half-century ago.
“Their offspring are expanding,” Kandel said of the peregrine species, which has already been delisted as endangered on the federal level. “There are available partners out there. They’re doing well in parts of New York and New England.”
Just how far can the peregrine falcon come back?
“The sky’s the limit,”Kandel said.