Like an avian soap opera, tens of millions of people have watched the drama around the clock from a peregrine falcon’s nest on the 15th floor of Harrisburg’s Rachel Carson State Office Building since 1997.
Using four video cameras, PA Falcon Cam viewers were delighted to see many of the 57 falcon chicks that have fledged from the nest over the years.
But what they don’t see are volunteers like Sue Hannon down in the streets, ready to save the baby birds when their clumsy first attempts at flying great heights fail, which they often do. Birds sometimes crash into buildings, get stuck on window sills or pinned to the ground.
“They were born to fly but don’t know how to fly. It takes them a bit of time to figure out how to use their wings,” says Hannon. “Most rescues happen on the first two or three flights.”
Like the time in 2009 when a young falcon lost control and ended up crashing into a tree. The poor raptor’s wings were pinned by branches and he flailed about helplessly.
Hannon, a Lancaster County native who coordinates the Harrisburg Hawk Watch and Rescue Program, asked another volunteer to bring a chair, then she reached the tree and rescued the bird.
She had to crawl under bushes at the nearby bus station to save a dazed hawk and once ran through stopped traffic on busy Walnut Street to capture a dazed youngster who had collapsed to the ground.
Since Hannon joined the all-volunteer Hawk Watch and Rescue program in 2005, she has been part of 25 hawk rescues from the longest active hawk nest in Pennsylvania. It is one of 73 nests across the state.
There have been more than 70 rescues in all since the watch program began in 2000. Despite the best efforts of the dawn-to-dusk group, 20 learning-to-fly hawks have been killed or gone missing. Here’s a sobering fact: 60-80% of falcons don’t survive to their first birthday.
But Hannon and his fellow watchdog volunteers have contributed mightily to the nest’s success rate. Often, young birds of prey need two to three rescues before they master the art of flight and diving, and their wing muscles develop.
Hannon, 62, estimates nest mortality could have been 60% higher without the rescues.
“I feel this common thread of being part of the restoration,” she says. “You feel like you’re making a difference when you save a young life, and then when you find out (years later) they’re nesting somewhere else, there’s a continuity of Rachel Carson’s legacy right down to us. .”
One of the hawks Hannon later rescued established its own nest in Cleveland, and another has a nest in Wilmington, Delaware. She knows this because the young hawks are banded in the Rachel Carson building’s nest before they fly.
Hannon will give a presentation, “A Falcon Watch Scrapbook,” with personal stories and photos, at the Lancaster County Bird Club at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in the auditorium of the Farm and Home Center, 1383 Arcadia Road. The public is invited and the conference is free.
how it started
Hannon, who grew up in Lititz, Ephrata and Schoeneck, sat in the stands one day 17 years ago watching her stepson play an inline hockey game. Speaking to another mother, Hannon mentioned that she found a juvenile sparrow on the sidewalk and was frustrated that she couldn’t find its nest.
“If you’re also upset about a baby sparrow, you’ll love the hawk watch,” her friend said.
Hannon sought out and joined the watch, which typically runs daily for about two weeks from late May through June. She had never even seen a pilgrim. But just 15 minutes into her first evening shift, she spotted a youngster flying between the buildings. The youngster was accompanied by his two parents.
“It was breathtaking to watch,” recalls Hannon, who now lives in Grantville, Dauphin County. “I was like, I want to do this forever.” That first young male hawk she saw ended up mating with a female and established a nest in Reading town center for 16 years.
In a few months, the shift team will be particularly busy. This is because there are currently five eggs in the nest – the first time there have been so many since 2010.
The watch always needs volunteers. Lancaster County residents have participated in the past. If interested, email Hannon at [email protected]
To check on the progress of the nest, day or night, check out the PA Falcon Cam by going online to www.dep.pa.gov and clicking on the falcon head image.
Ad Crable is a LNL | Outdoor Editor LancasterOnline. Email him at [email protected]