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Falcon keeps a keen eye on Falls

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Those visiting Snoqualmie Falls may be in for a bit of a bonus over the next few months.

A nest of peregrine falcons was recently spotted just to the right of the Falls on the side of the cliff.

These birds, native to North America, were on the Federal List of Endangered Species for many years until 1999. They are still considered to be an endangered or protected species in Washington.

The birds of prey, which are about the size of a crow, are known best for their top speeds of 200 miles an hour and their method of dive bombing out of the sky, wings tucked under, to sneak up on other birds. The peregrines are considered raptors, animals that occupy the top of the food chain by eating animals that eat other animals. Peregrines peg birds like pigeons on the back of the head, knocking them out and taking them back to the nest for dinner.

"You wouldn't expect a bird of that size to kill other birds," said Lee Kantar, district wildlife biologist for King County who is in charge of monitoring wildlife in the Valley. But peregrines are able to fly at tremendous speeds. "It's like a bullet shooting down after something," Kantar said.

Scott Dodson of Snoqualmie spotted the nest six weeks ago while shooting some wildlife photography.

He stumbled across the birds through a couple of out-of-focus shots. When he got the birds in focus, he discovered they were peregrines and has been videotaping their activity ever since.

Snoqualmie Falls is not an unusual nesting place for the birds, which set up housekeeping on the sides of cliffs and sometimes even buildings (that they use as artificial cliffs). The birds scrape out a spot on a ledge so they have a range of vision of other birds flying around the area. Peregrines lay their eggs on flat ledges sticking out from cliffs. As their chicks get older, the adults are seen less frequently because they hide out of sight, waiting for other birds who might disturb their young.

"Then they come flying out of nowhere and attack much larger raptors," Kantar said.

The nest at the Falls makes for a particularly picturesque home for the birds and those observing them.

"It's an excellent setting ... really a unique mix of spectacular view points," Dodson said.

The wildlife photography enthusiast works for Kenny's Northwest Experience and as a hobby photographs wildlife, flowers and other natural scenes. Dodson monitors the birds and writes informational articles on the backs of some of his photos to sell at Kenny's.

"Birds are just fascinating. They have really distinct behaviors. They're beautiful in appearance and song," Dodson said.

From 150-175 yards away, Dodson can get some pretty good video and photos of the birds feeding, sleeping and doing other peregrine falcon activities.

"From what I've seen, it seems as if the female does the feeding and the male does predator security for the nest."

It's not unusual to see the birds tossing their fresh kill between them in the air, Dodson said.

"The catch is shared between, mother, young and father. It's really interesting to watch that midair exchange. They work together in raising the young and feeding. The males make sure nothing's around to eat the catch."

Kantar has been watching peregrines in the area and recording their whereabouts over the years.

"The thing about Snoqualmie Falls is we haven't recorded any falcons nesting there and being productive. Two years ago, we noticed some in the cliffs," Kantar said.

The falcons' tendency to nest high up on cliffs makes nests hard to see, Kantar said. Usually you have to crane your neck back and stare up for hours to catch a glimpse of one.

"The chances of the average person seeing a falcon is pretty much nil," Kantar said. "It's not like seeing a robin in the yard every day, but they're out there." But because the Falls are easy to view, one is likely to see the falcons.

"They're at the right of the Falls in your line of sight and bam, there's a falcon. It's physically an easy spot to view peregrine falcons in their natural state," Kantar said.

Seattlites are a little more attentive to the birds because they have nested in the Washington Mutual building downtown, Kantar said. "It's a strange thing because a bird like the peregrine used to be so rare."

Peregrines were considered endangered until 1999 because of the threat of DDT, a pesticide that softens bird eggs. The substance has since been banned.

Kantar strives to educate people about peregrines and other wildlife in the region "to show them that there are wild things out there and get them excited about it."

Though Kantar expects the chicks to be flying and feeding themselves starting this week, he said they will be around for the next couple of months and visible to visitors at the Falls.

For information on peregrines, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site at www.wdfw.wa.gov.

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