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Falcon webcam renews city's connection to speedy birds of prey

Baltimore's peregrine falcon webcam: complete with a love triangle, possible murder and soon, birth.

On one end of the southern ledge of a downtown skyscraper's 33rd floor, there is death — bloodstains, a mess of feathers, the head of a small songbird or woodpecker.

But nearby is life — two peregrine falcons taking turns incubating brown speckled eggs, every so often rolling them around with the same yellow and black beaks that rip apart pigeons and sparrows.

The trials and triumphs of the nest's past inhabitants were long the subject of news articles. In 1992, a fledgling falcon died during a summer thunderstorm; the next year, another wayward youth was rescued from a nearby rooftop, according to The Baltimore Sun's archives. But since the late 1990s, downtown's fast-flying birds of prey have lived in obscurity to most, save a few business executives.

That changed when a webcam launched last month, giving the falcons their own reality show of sorts — complete with the intrigue of a love triangle, possible murder and, soon, new birth.

Since the camera launched at the Transamerica tower on Light Street, a new female chased out the original that the Chesapeake Conservancy, the webcam's sponsor, named Barb. The new Barb mated with a male dubbed Boh, laying at least three eggs, which are expected to hatch next month. If all goes well, by summer, webcam viewers will be able to watch the chicks' first flights.

It's a window into nature that can't be explained — and shouldn't invite interference, said Craig Koppie, a raptor biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has tracked the falcons for decades.

"In wildlife, you don't ask questions," Koppie said. "The stronger one is the one who lives, and the population benefits from that. That's about the only way you can look at it."

The nest dates to 1978, when workers at the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. first noticed a female peregrine falcon outside the windows of the insurance company's corporate communications office. Falcon advocacy group the Peregrine Fund, which had named the bird Scarlett and released her near Edgewood the year before, worked with the company to build her a nest.

For years, the fund tried to provide her mates, but she only laid infertile eggs, though she did raise laboratory-born eyasses, the proper name for falcon chicks. The arrival of a male named Beauregard in 1983 led to the first falcon births on the ledge of the 35-story building, Baltimore's tallest, in the spring of 1984. Beauregard sired 39 falcons over a dozen years, according to records provided by the Chesapeake Conservancy.

But after the mid-1990s, the records go quiet — around the same time Legg Mason took over as the building's primary occupant. Koppie, who continued to check on the nest but doesn't name the birds, said the nest has seen steady turnover in males and females since then, unnoticed by casual observers.

Consider the record book reopened.

The Chesapeake Conservancy, a conservation advocacy group, took notice of the falcon nest last fall when Skyline Technology Solutions, a Glen Burnie information technology company the conservancy works with, passed along stories about the falcons from a client of its own, Transamerica. The insurance company took over as the tower's signature tenant in 2011.

The birds have "participated in some conference calls," said Steve Lempa, whose corner office frequently has a prime view of the falcons. "They can hear them in Cedar Rapids."

Lempa, who is vice president of portfolio risk management for Transamerica sister company Aegon Asset Management, said he was warned he was moving into "a falcon office" when he arrived. He soon learned what that meant. On one occasion, just as a new hire sat down with him for orientation, a falcon arrived and tore into a pigeon for lunch.

For the Chesapeake Conservancy, the nest presented an opportunity to expand an audience that had tuned in to a different webcam depicting the lives of two ospreys, Tom and Audrey, just off Kent Island. The organization aims to raise awareness of its mission promoting conservation and society's connection to nature.

"There's this disconnect between our citizens and nature," said Joel Dunn, the organization's executive director. "The camera serves to reconnect them with these beautiful creatures that are out there that deserve our attention and respect."

The raptors are a slight 2 pounds each, smaller than eagles or great horned owls, but they are the fastest creatures on earth, diving for prey at speeds up to 200 mph. They typically nest on high cliffs but have frequently found skyscrapers to be suitable homes. Their numbers were decimated in the mid-1900s because of the pesticide DDT, but they have rebounded in recent decades.

Koppie, so long the Light Street nest's guardian, considers the attention a good thing — "a wonderful, valuable resource to learn all about these birds."

But it also carries the risk of inviting human intervention, he said.

There's already been drama since the camera turned on. One day not long after it went live, a female falcon arrived in the nest appearing ruffled, with a band on her leg indicating she was a newcomer — a 2-year-old that flew in from Philadelphia, Koppie said.

"There was a fight somewhere," he said.

The other female hasn't turned up yet, dead or alive. Koppie banded her soon after her birth at the Key Bridge in 2009. Chesapeake Conservancy officials decided not to publicize the switch, keeping with the Barb name, given in honor of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

And there are hazards ahead. The first of Boh and Barb's eggs was laid April 12, suggesting it will hatch around mid-May. But there is always a chance eggs will be infertile, as Scarlett's were repeatedly.

About two months after they hatch, the young falcons are expected to go airborne, as Boh and Barb teach them how to dive and swoop for prey by dropping pigeons for the juveniles to catch, Koppie said. Typically, they venture hundreds of miles from the nest as they grow, eventually never to return, he said.

But sometimes the mother may not waste food on a runt, Koppie said. The vulnerable fledglings could struggle to fly, like the one that was stranded on the roof of the Hyatt Hotel in 1992.

Koppie said he hopes that doesn't invite bird lovers to meddle with Mother Nature. But that doesn't mean he always enjoys the joys and pains of life and death — survival of the fittest.

"It will all balance out, he said. "That's the way it is. But when I'm there and I'm seeing it, it's very heartbreaking."

sdance@baltsun.com

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