Peregrine Falcon Youngster Perishes on Bridge, But Hopes Are High for Foster Fledgling

By JULIET KASZAS-HOCH | Jul 25, 2018
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

“Northside Jim” Verhagen regularly monitors the peregrine falcon family that resides in and around a new nesting platform in the marsh to the south of the eastbound stretch of the Dorland J. Henderson Bridge. Early last week, after the sole fledgling, named Blue Bonnet, was found dead on the roadway there, he believes her parents, Bridgeboy and Jo Durt, demonstrated mourning. “They do a certain call,” said Verhagen. “Jo Durt landed on the pier with her mate, which is very unusual.”

Despite the young peregrine’s death, as Ben Wurst, habitat program manager for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, pointed out, “This is still kind of a success story.”

Verhagen, a North Beach resident, concurred: “Blue Bonnet is still a victory of progress.”

Wurst and Verhagen have monitored these Causeway Bridge-bound birds of prey – among the 30-some pairs in the state – since 2015, when Bridgeboy lived underneath part of the old rise with a different female, Billy. That year, the couple had one egg, which did not hatch.

In 2016, two eggs hatched in the pair’s nest box under the new bridge, but both youngsters died; the mortality rate for any bird born under the bridge, said Wurst, is basically 100 percent, as the air currents there make it nearly impossible for them to successfully fledge and fly from beneath.

Last year, Jo Durt replaced Billy, likely after a fight to the death. That same year, the raptors’ eggs were unviable.

Jo Durt, as Verhagen explained, hatched in a flowerpot on a condo balcony in Wildwood Crest in 2014, and flew to LBI with her brother, who was later electrocuted in Beach Haven. The female peregrine hung out on the Surf City water tower until she took over Billy’s spot under the bridge, soon after mating with Bridgeboy.

“She’s been an Islander since she’s been able to fly,” Verhagen said of Jo Durt.

Earlier this year, in an effort to aid the peregrine pair, CWF was subcontracted by the state Endangered and Nongame Species Program to construct the 16-foot tower, with a platform and igloo atop, that now stands in the marsh. Peregrines return to the same spot each year to raise their young, so it was a bit of a waiting game to see if these bridge-dwellers would accept the new structure. They did, and Jo Durt subsequently laid four eggs, though only the one containing Blue Bonnet hatched.

“This year was their first real chance,” said Wurst, as this chick would not have to learn to fly from underneath the bridge.

After “Bonnie” fledged in late June or early July, Mom and Dad took her straight to the bridge. Verhagen would see her perched up on the railing, a dangerous spot for a bird.

Last week, Wurst received a call about what looked like a dead peregrine on the westbound side of the Causeway Bridge. Verhagen drove past and felt pretty certain it was Blue Bonnet. “Then we looped in the DOT, so we could confirm,” said Wurst. The DOT contacted the construction crew to stop traffic to retrieve the bird’s body.

“We try to give them the safest place possible,” Wurst noted. “But after these young birds fledge, there are still plenty of threats to them.”

“The reality of the situation,” said Verhagen, “is those birds love the bridge.

“Jo Durt loves the Causeway. … All of our local animals are just like us. We all like our own piece of the shore.”

The bridge provides good hunting ground for these strong, swift raptors, with the rumble of trucks scaring out pigeons from beneath, and ducks floating down in Barnegat Bay.

Peregrine falcons are adapted to urban environments, but it’s a 50/50 chance of survival for any fledgling, and the traffic and construction just add additional challenges.

“It’s never easy for peregrine falcons,” Verhagen noted.

The peregrine population was depleted in the years of DDT and other pesticide use, and the species was listed as endangered in 1970. The birds have since made a comeback. Wurst, Verhagen and state zoologist Kathy Clark are among those dedicated to New Jersey’s peregrines, and it was this trio that connected with rescuers in other states to – in a continuation of the story of the bridge raptors – bring three foster fledglings to the nest of Bridgeboy and Jo Durt, not long before Blue Bonnet’s sad end.

The foster youngsters Blue and Red had hatched in a nest on the roof of a tall apartment building on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and both were found in distress and taken to the nonprofit Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Inc. in Delaware for rehabilitation. Freaky, from Atlantic City, ended up at Tri-State as well.

Following their rehab, Blue, Red and Freaky were brought to the Causeway Bridge nest, which was deemed a good placement in part because of its constant monitoring. The birds were dipped in a bucket to wet their feathers, a technique to make them want to stay in the location they are released, as they prefer to be fully dry before they fly.

Red and Freaky have been MIA, but could still be alive and well somewhere. Blue, though, has stayed. “Blue is becoming an Islander,” said Verhagen. “She is clearly living on her own and learning by watching Jo Durt at a distance. … The adults impart knowledge to the younger birds in ways we don’t completely understand.”

Jo Durt, too, Verhagen added, is learning as the years pass and she remains there in the marsh, by the bridge, with the responsibilities of a parent. “That’s an upside,” he remarked. “They have a long life cycle.”

Hopefully, humans are learning, too, as they see and read about these “magical animals,” said Verhagen. “I fought for this tower, so that it could be a visual symbol for people coming over the bridge,” as well as a home.

And while the death of Blue Bonnet is heartrending, these small tragedies, in their own way, bond us and point us all forward, the birds and the people who live among them.



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