Video: Flight of the Cal Falcons

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In the midst of the pandemic, many Bay Area residents were enthralled by a pair of peregrine falcons raising three fuzzy chicks  named Poppy, Redwood and Sequoia atop UC Berkeley’s Campanile. This is the fourth year the falcon pair raised babies in this same spot, but only the second time that their nest was streamed live on the Cal Falcon Cam. On May 30, Redwood was the first chick to fledge — taking his first flight from the nest. His siblings Sequoia and Poppy followed soon after.

“[The cam is] a great opportunity for us to take [viewers] from ‘Here's the nesting story’ to ‘Come see the migration story’ in the Marin Headlands,” said Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, one of five partners that oversee the cam.

Between August and December, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory typically organizes hundreds of citizen scientists who contribute more than 40,000 volunteer hours to count eagles, falcons, hawks and other birds of prey as they head over to the Marin Headlands near Sausalito, the largest raptor migration in California. The observatory logs around 20,000 bird sightings each fall, and it can help scientists understand the health of raptor populations as they disperse across the Western states.

Though the observatory is currently in the offseason, this time of year would normally be dedicated to recruiting and training volunteers for the fall migration. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Cal Falcon Cam was an important recruiting tool.

But with fewer volunteers and anticipated changes to the migration survey to accommodate social distancing, Fish worries this year will result in a significant gap in this ongoing research.

“This is a scientific study done in a repeatable fashion for 35 years,” said Fish. “You can't just suddenly change that methodology and expect to get the same kind of data.”

Even though the chicks have fledged and are now learning to hunt on their own, all three will likely hang around the Campanile for a couple months while their parents continue to feed them. The Falcon Cam still shows common landing areas where people can keep an eye on the young birds.

Eventually, the birds will disperse and establish their own territories. At least one chick from a previous clutch is now nesting on Alcatraz. But there are many perils for young raptors in urban environments. In 2017, one of the falcon chicks died shortly after fledging, when it flew into a window.

Ashley Quick, executive director of the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill, says her organization often cares for sick or injured birds of prey. “We get car strikes, we get poisonings, we get all sorts of things,” she said.

Rat poison is a particular danger. Birds will often ingest it through rodents and other animals who have become lethargic and are easy prey after consuming the toxic substances.

“It’s a slow and excruciating death because [the birds] hemorrhage from the inside,” Quick explained.

But there are plenty of opportunities to see healthy birds of prey in urban and natural environments alike. Walter Kitundu, a MacArthur Fellow and accomplished raptor photographer, said the San Francisco Bay Area can be a great place to see urban birds. The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory has used some of his photos to track a red-tailed hawk in the wild whose band number was visible in them.

Kitundu says that you don’t need fancy equipment to enjoy watching the birds. “I think the most important thing is just being out there, paying attention, and learning to put yourself in the right places,” he said. “And it’s the birds that teach you that.”

Fish hopes that people following the Cal falcons will be inspired to participate in citizen science through apps like iNaturalist and eBird. And he has a tip for seeing Poppy, Redwood and Sequoia: The best place to see them now, he says, is from the base of the Campanile.