The Best Free Air Show in Utica

A peregrine falcon pair has made a home in downtown Utica with a little help from their feather-loving friends.

Story by Richard M. Barrett. Photos by Richard M. Barrett and Matt Perry.

Ares, patriarch of the Utica peregrines

It was a sweltering early-July morning in downtown Utica, the still air already thick and heavy, yet there they were, two lone figures tucked into a back corner of a parking lot behind Grace Church on Elizabeth Street, seated in camp chairs, heads tilted skyward, taking in what one of them calls “the best free air show in Utica.”

Conservationist Matt Perry focused an enormous telescopic lens on a window ledge of the Adirondack Bank Building, while his counterpart and loyal volunteer, Deb Saltis, raised her high-powered binoculars to get a closer look at the sudden commotion taking place there and identify who was responsible.

For several weeks, Perry and Saltis had been logging hundreds of hours monitoring the most recent brood of four peregrine falcon fledges -- Keisha, Penelope, Archie, and Rue -- who hatched in mid-May in a nest box occupied by their parents and lifelong mates, Astrid and Ares. The summer of 2019 marked the pair’s sixth successful brood, thanks to the dedication and untiring efforts of Perry, who was primarily responsible for providing the environment they need to mate and fledge their young.

Perry, the Conservation Director at Spring Farm Cares in Clinton, has been observing migrant falcons for 25 years and has done extensive research on their breeding habits and history of nesting in the area.

Matt Perry and Deb Saltis observe the falcon family from their perch on Elizabeth Street in Utica.

“Buildings in Utica are not conducive for falcon nesting,” he observed, noting there are only four downtown structures suitable for it. “Falcons like a covered ledge up high and there was nothing here like that. All birds have a site profile in their brain of what their ideal nest should be, and falcons typically nest on sheer cliffs in the wild. That’s their site profile, and buildings are similar and fit that profile.”

Without that nest box, which was installed in 2013 on a ledge on the side of the Adirondack Bank Building that faces Elizabeth Street, there would be no annual air show and no need for Perry, Saltis and a team of volunteers to do what they do. The continuous monitoring, particularly in the weeks after hatching, is critical to the raptors’ survival, but it also has tremendous value in terms of gathering research and developing a deeper understanding of this still-endangered species.

The falcons' high-rise home on the Adirondack Bank building.

The origins of the Utica Peregrine Falcon Project date back to 2008 when a peregrine falcon pair first tried to make a go of nesting and breeding on the gold-domed M&T Bank Building.

“In 2008, I started coming downtown a few times a week after hearing talk that there was a pair frequenting the bank building,” Perry said. “They did have a nest and we named them Maya and Thor (M&T, get it?) but they were not successful after two years. Both years she produced only one egg, which is highly unusual, and they didn’t hatch despite her incubating them.”

Perry remembers the pair as “quirky,” but also feels that their breeding and nesting situation was less than ideal.

“The gold-dome site was unusual because it was so low,” he said. “They chose this nesting site, only four-stories high, which was 10 stories lower than any other nesting pair in New York at that time. We think they did it out of desperation and there was no other place for them.”

Although unsuccessful, the pair’s surprise arrival in Utica created a major buzz in the community, and interest has continued to grow over the years as each new mating season approaches. Sadly, Thor died in 2010 and Maya didn’t choose another mate. She disappeared in 2012 and Perry said Astrid and Ares moved in almost immediately. They weren’t banded, so he doesn’t know where they came from, but thinks it’s possible they had been probing, and waiting in the wings for an opportunity to claim the territory for themselves.

Astrid, Utica's graceful peregrine matriarch in flight.

After the initial pair’s failed attempts, Spring Farm Cares and Perry collaborated with the Kirkland Bird Club and formed a committee that recommended installing nest boxes on the ledges of two downtown buildings that would simulate the nests falcons make in the wild. In 2013, they received permission from the owners of the Adirondack Bank Building and Hotel Utica to install the boxes and a year later, the current residents, Astrid and Ares, made the bank building’s nest box their permanent home base, which they’ve occupied now for the past six years. According to Perry, they maintain it year-round, and once established in an area, they become fierce defenders of their territory and air space, forbidding any intruders or competitors within a certain distance of their nest.

“We felt the bank was preferable because the ledges are sturdier and there was easy access to electricity for our monitoring equipment,” Perry explained. “It’s still not ideal because falcons don’t like to locate outside an active office. They see the movement inside and they want people out of their sight.”

Had there been a decision to forego installing nest boxes, Perry also wouldn’t have crossed paths with Deb Saltis, who worked in an office on the bank’s 15th floor. Her desk sat next to a large window that offered a perfect view of the nest box for purposes of monitoring and access, if needed. She was amenable to letting them use it, although she admits she thought Perry was completely crazy when he came to her office, poked around, and chose that site for the nest box.

“I didn’t think there were peregrine falcons in downtown Utica. No way,” she laughed. Six years later, having witnessed six successful breeding seasons, she thinks far differently. She’s also now obsessed with peregrine falcons, to the point where she became a project volunteer and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator specializing in raptors. She calculates she has spent more than 5,000 hours monitoring Utica’s peregrine falcons over the years. They both admit they spend an embarrassing amount of time” on the project, but it’s truly a labor of love.

“I had a life change. I knew nothing about birds before, but now I know more about peregrine falcons than a lot of ornithologists. The knowledge that I’ve gained here has changed my life and how I rehab, and all of that flows back into the project. I’m more tuned into nature now; I’ve always loved it, but not to the point of realizing the impacts of what we do on the environment.” ~Deb Saltis

The two trained observers are on-site virtually every day from mid-June to late July.

“As long as they’re doing interesting things, we’ll monitor them,” said Perry. “They’re not in much trouble once they’re flying. June 16th was the first fledge, and the first two weeks are critical. They’re inexperienced and can get injured or end up in the road. We’ve rescued six birds over the course of six years, and they would have perished if not for our intervention and rehab.”

They set up an awning in the Grace Church parking lot during the heart of fledge season so volunteers can easily find them and also to provide shade and shelter. Saltis takes a week of vacation and is on-site from 7 am to 9 pm each day to monitor activity and rescue any birds that are in danger or become injured. She and Perry had to rescue two young this year during fledge time. One got stuck on a roof and another was found walking along Genesee Street after a crash landing.

“Landing is the trick,” Perry said. “We corralled him onto a side street, netted him. Deb checked him out and we released him later from the perch. Deb can check them out instead of taking them to Syracuse for observation, which is a benefit of her being licensed. It gets them back out there quicker, which is key.”

In addition to the vital support and assistance Perry and Saltis provide to the still-endangered peregrine falcons by installing nest boxes, monitoring activity, and responding to rescues, their voluminous collection of data and research gathered over the past six years is proving invaluable. There are terabytes of live-streamed videos, thousands of photographs, and hundreds of hours of audio recordings documenting the peregrine falcon community in downtown Utica that’s being shared with other researchers and collaborators. Besides writing for, and serving as Regional Editor of The Kingbird, a quarterly journal published by the New York State Ornithological Association, Perry also writes a blog and publishes the collected data and information on the project’s website.

According to Saltis, one item of particular interest that resulted from her observations

was that peregrine falcons actually drink water, which she says contradicted most of the research they had available.

“The research was saying they get water only from the prey they eat, but we’ve watched them drink from puddles of water,” Saltis noted. “From that, all of my rehabs have water now that I’ve seen that they drink. It changes what I do with the raptors that I rehab.”

Keisha and Penelope in a roof-top puddle.

Perry adds that the project provides a unique opportunity for bird watching.

“I’ve studied raptors in the wild, but never to this detail,” he said. “It offers a naturalist this incredibly intimate situation where we can see everything. In other cities, the buildings are too tall or there are too many that get in the way. Here, there are only four buildings they can go to and we can easily see all the activity and all aspects of their behavior.”

Perry and Saltis have seen and heard it all, including fresh kills of cuckoos and pigeons, which make up the bulk of the peregrine falcon diet. They’ve documented mid-air transfers of food from mother to juvenile. They’ve recorded screeching juveniles telling their parents they’re hungry, and the parents shrieking back, rebuking them when they try to take food. Perry has heard them vocalizing through the eggshell, even before they hatch.

“We heard two babies who flew to their mother who had prey, and she was talking to them,” said Saltis. “We could hear it and had never heard that before. It was Astrid making like a duck call, saying ‘follow me.’”

Saltis has noticed that the raptors wisely intensify their hunting and fill up before a storm hits.

“They know weather better than we do,”she said. “The parents also corral them and get them to settle down when there’s a storm coming. We know that Astrid doesn’t like bad storms.”

Perry added, “The young have no sense; they’re just flying around on the wind. We saw two that looked like they were flying backwards. But that’s the behavior that we’re fortunate enough to document. We text all the time; we have a record correlated with video and photos so we have a complete picture of what transpires during the course of the nesting season.”

Among the most impressive displays they’ve witnessed during their time working together, and an important research finding in their eyes, was a display of altruistic behavior between siblings. Perry recounts an incident in which a juvenile was injured, rescued and rehabilitated for a week, then released only to be ignored by his parents. It had limited flight and couldn’t hunt for food, so his brother started bringing him food, which Perry said is highly unusual wildlife behavior.

Perry has been studying and watching birds since childhood and started doing bird survey work in the 1990s as an avid conservationist. He has a wealth of knowledge and firsthand experience that he enjoys sharing with anyone who is interested.

For example, peregrine falcon fledges are adult size when they leave the nest, about the size of a crow and weighing about two pounds. They can live to 20 years, but in the wild they’re lucky to make it to 7. Perry estimates Astrid and Aries, who came to Utica in 2012 as 2 year-old adults, are now 9.

They’re the fastest birds in the world, and incredibly maneuverable, able to turn upside down, hover, and transfer food in mid-air. Flying laterally, they can reach speeds of 65 mph but when diving, can accelerate to 233 mph.

Females are larger than males and there are behavioral differences as well. The female is the alpha, and is stricter with her offspring than the male. She takes on any predators and is more aggressive in defending her nest. The male defers to her during ledge displays and brings food to her as a tribute before mating.

Peregrine falcons don’t make conventional nests with sticks and straw, but instead do a scraping into the substrate that’s found on building ledges. In order to simulate the substrate, the nest box contains a layer of pea gravel along the bottom, and the birds sometimes add a few stones they pick up in their travels.

Learning to hunt comes from watching and following their parents, but Perry claims that they mostly use instinct.

“They watch the parents a lot,” added Saltis. They can see them because they have two telescopes for eyes. We’ve seen them or heard the young ones calling, and they can see their parents in the distance way before we can. We can discern from their behavior what’s happening between the siblings and parents.”

By summer’s end, however, Perry says the juveniles will migrate and look for a mate in the spring, but most likely nowhere near Utica. They’ll settle hundreds of miles away and probably will never be seen here again. He’s sad to see them go, yet excited that the project has once again proven successful.

Four photos of young peregrine falcons who grew up in Utica.

Despite the Endangered Species listing, Perry’s encouraged by the falcons’ recovering numbers and the recent confirmation of a pair that bred on the cliffs in Little Falls.

“That’s the first-ever there,” he said. “It’s great territory for them. We suspected it for a long time and almost put a nest box there.”

Perry’s dedication and guidance have been instrumental in the project’s success, but he couldn’t have done it without the corps of volunteers who show up time and time again with cameras, binoculars and cell phones in hand, training their eyes on the skies above downtown Utica and capturing the dazzling display that unfolds minute by minute throughout the day.

Still, Perry said it would be helpful to have additional people, especially during fledge watch, which typically occurs from mid-June to early July. That way, he can assign volunteers to multiple vantage points and restation them as necessary. Spreading them out to watch for fledges that are injured or in danger helps expedite rescue efforts and improves rehab success.

Volunteers can also serve as goodwill ambassadors for the Utica Peregrine Falcon Project by appearing at schools and various civic and community groups to help raise awareness and support of its mission and overall message of conservation.

“What we’re doing is intriguing to people,” Perry noted. “With the peregrine falcon’s history of becoming extinct, this is a great introduction to discovering how fragile the environment is and how resilient it is if we give it the opportunity. They see that we can make a difference and we want them to know we’re always looking for people to help us.”

Perry and Saltis take great pride in their work and accomplishments, and it’s all done pro bono without the slightest bit of regret. Their compensation comes from making a contribution to conservation by helping out the endangered peregrine falcon - improving the numbers of young that are successful at this nest.

Saltis was the one calling it “the best free air show in Utica.”

“It’s the coolest thing ever,” she said, as a beaming Perry nods in full agreement.

Birds of a feather.


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