An Experience of a Lifetime

This year the best and worst news have been arriving unexpectedly in my inbox. This one was “holy cow” and “oh please don’t let it be serious”. The email came from our friends at Wildlife Haven and it was about a peregrine falcon found near the Logan nestsite on Tuesday. The bird was dehydrated and couldn’t get herself out of the space between two buildings where she was found. She was examined by Haven’s new resident veterinarian, Dr Sayrah, and nothing was found to be wrong with her but she wasn’t getting any height when she flew. That could have been why she needed rescuing. Question was why? Soft tissue injury? Something more serious but difficult to diagnose? The dehydration was the first priority however and she was given fluids and an enclosure inside the Centre where she could rest.

Next day she (and we) were extraordinarily fortunate because Dr Sherri from the University of Guelph was visiting. Dr Sherri is a wildlife veterinarian who trains wildlife vets and rehabilitators. Meant that the peregrine got a second exam which showed the same as the first. She was in good condition other than the dehydration. And her appetite was intact, she was happy to take the quail the Centre staff were offering her. As a bonus, even inside, her flights were getting stronger so she was moved to an outdoor enclosure that evening to give her more room in the hope that she would show Centre staff what she could do. This was great news, it mean that she might/could be released soon.

Thursday, she spent the day in the outdoor enclosure, eating and showing off her improving flight skills. That’s when the Centre decided that she was ready to go and Dennis and I began making plans.

This morning, we headed out to Wildlife Haven’s Centre in Ile des Chenes with Dennis’ camera equipment, a pet carrier and two potential release locations. Given that we have four chicks from two nests learning to fly in Winnipeg, we wanted to release her so that she had a chance to stay out of trouble if she wished. Or at least until the chicks were older and their parents less protective. We can’t actually stop her from returning to the City, but we can offer her an excellent alternative.

Now this is not our first release or even our first release this year, but this one was extra special. Why? Because the bird is one of the Project’s rockstars. All Hail the Queen. Yes, Princess our long-time resident female at the Radisson Hotel and matriarch of most Manitoba’s breeding birds is alive has come back for a visit. We last saw her in 2018. Mother of Alley (Lincoln, Nebraska, currently in care), Hart (West Winnipeg), Radisson (University of Alberta, Edmonton), grandmother of both Pip and Ella (Radisson), Jennifer (Selkirk), Fleming (Fargo, North Dakota) and Squeak (Bell Tower, Edmonton). And those are just the birds known to be nesting this year. As of today, Princess is 19 years, 1 month and 17 days old and according to the vets who examined her, in good condition for a peregrine of any age. She hatched in Minneapolis in May 2002 and arrived in Winnipeg with the Radisson male Trey in the spring of 2004. Princess and Trey were together for six years. Next came Ivy for four years, Smiley for three years and Pip for two years. All told, Princess held the Radisson territory for 15 years, laid 54 eggs, hatched 43 chicks of which 37 fledged. Of those 37, 11 went on to nest across the Canadian Prairies and the US Midwest. Her grand-chicks and great-grand-chicks are continuing her legacy in three provinces and six states.

photo courtesy of T Maconachie

So when we arrived at Wildlife Haven, it was with nervousness and excitement that we chatted with Angie and Dr Sayrah about Princess before heading out to her flight cage. And there she sat, an outline in the shade at the far end of the enclosure. We are used to seeing Princess glaring or yelling down at us from the communications tower on the roof of the Radisson. Sensing (correctly) that we weren’t there to leave her in peace, she flew across the enclosure and back again to her perch. Then up to the roof and off to another perch before finally landing on the ground not far from us. She ran down the edge of the fence and I was able to pick her up when she got to the corner and had no where else to go.

photo courtesy of D Swayze

Amazing feeling to look at her, her face just inches from mine, her wings and feet in my hands. So much smaller than her personality, contributions to her species or her presence in my life. As I held her against my chest, I could feel her heart beating. Not to be anthropomorphic, but I wonder if feeling my heartbeat was as amazing as my feeling hers. A memory I will never forget.

Then it was time to get her back where she belonged. Into the carrier she went, which she didn’t like (big surprise), and we were back on the road with her safely, if not happily, ensconced in the backseat with a towel over the carrier to reduce stress. Now our first release location is across town from Ile des Chenes so getting there was going to take some time. Usually we plot and plan while we travel, but Princess wouldn’t settle and we realized that we were going to have to shut up while we travelled … at Her Majesty’s Command.

Our first release location is one we have visited but not one we have used before. Its a nice location but we have seen peregrines in the area so we made sure to keep an eye out. At our second stop we could see a peregrine so we swung a little closer and that’s when we could see the second bird – one male and one female by their size. Not nesting of course, but we’d already decided that we wouldn’t release her near a roost or nest site and not if we saw any peregrines in the vicinity. So we headed north, way way north, to Oak Hammock Marsh, and then west to Peregrine Drive which seemed appropriate for her release. Here we found a spot where it was flat and where the ground cover wasn’t too high (its the growing season after all), that way if she got grounded again we’d be able to retrieve her quickly.

photo courtesy of D Swayze

We positioned the carrier knowing most birds go off on a bit of an angle to the wind. We waited a couple of minutes so she could settle, we didn’t want her rushing and injuring herself. The carrier door came off and we held our breath. Didn’t take her more than a few seconds before she was out and giving me one last glare. Then she leapt, soared over a bush by the side of the road and landed about a thousand feet away in a patch of prairie grasses. Dennis walked slowly to keep her in sight and she leapt into the air again. This time she circled, gaining altitude before heading off eastward until we lost sight of her over the wetlands.

We didn’t leave right away. It seemed wrong not to wait and watch on the off-chance that we might catch another glimpse of her. Eventually we did head back, but much slower than usual as we scanned the horizon and the sky overhead. When we got back to the Interpretive Centre, we took a long last look around but she was off about her business. As it should be.

photo courtesy of D Swayze

From March to November for more years than either of us can believe, Dennis and I have watched the skies for peregrines. We know where to look and we have spent thousands of hours looking for and watching them. Today was a treat we likely won’t have the privilege of experiencing ever again. I have banded all of Princess’ mates and chicks, and most of her grand and great-grand chicks. I have spent years watching every moment of her life in the nestbox. I’ve watched her hold her territory by sheer force of personality and occasionally in knock-down-drag-out fights in the nestbox. I have watched her protect her chicks from heat and cold, even ice storms, and refuse to give up when the rain just wouldn’t stop. I have known this bird longer than I have know Dennis or Eye-Spy or many other friends, and I haven’t the words to describe how right it was to see her fly away from us as indomitable as ever.

The Project would like to thank Martha, Angie, Dr Sayrah, Dr Sherri and everyone else at Wildlife Haven who rescued Princess and cared for her during her short stay with them.

photo courtesy of D Swayze