Peregrine falcons outlive the power plants that once saved them

Published 5:53 am Wednesday, October 30, 2019

By Elizabeth Dunbar

MPR News/90.1

A small Elk River power plant has been home to many things over the past 70 years: A coal-fired electricity generator, a spot for nuclear energy experiments and, most recently, a trash-to-energy incinerator

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And now that the plant is set to close its role as a home to nesting falcons is the only one that could live on. The plant stopped burning trash in January and is being decommissioned — and leveled — over the next year, a result of changing economics and the transition toward cleaner energy sources in the state.

The search is on for a new home for the Elk River plant’s peregrine falcon nesting box — preferably somewhere high up in the air so they can dive for their favorite food: Pigeons.

“[The falcons] were the plant mascots,” said Brenda Geisler, an administrative assistant for Great River Energy, the company that runs the plant, who has looked after the nesting box since the first pair of falcons arrived in 2007. Since then, 38 falcon chicks have hatched and fledged from the Elk River roost.

Great River Energy plans to bring the plant to the ground by the end of next year, so Geisler and her colleagues there are weighing options for the falcons. They could move the nesting box somewhere nearby — there’s a natural gas plant with those requisite high perches next door — or build something separate that’s suitable for the birds they’ve grown so fond of.

Whatever solution they land on will happen while the falcons are on their southern migration this winter. And if the nesting box isn’t replaced, people will notice, said Glenn Hauck, who served as the plant’s manager and is now overseeing its decommissioning work. Hauck said the falcons have an international following, thanks to the cameras attached to the box that would broadcast the bird’s nesting activities online.

“When we have camera issues, people from Israel call us,” he said, for example. “It’s just an interesting project. It’s fun to see.”

The birds’ biggest audience — online or in person — is schoolchildren. Geisler visits classrooms each year to talk about the birds. She hosts groups of students every spring during banding season, when the newly hatched chicks get ID bracelets put on their legs.

“It gets [the kids] interested in nature and what’s going on around them,” said Geisler, who first became interested in peregrine falcons after watching a history show on TV that described how falcons were used in World War II to catch and kill messenger pigeons.

Geisler knew the Elk River plant also had a pigeon problem, so she looked into getting a nesting box for the property. A local Eagle Scout built it, and the whole thing became part of the Raptor Resource Project, which monitors nesting sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Colorado.

Over the years, it’s produced Roger and Royal and Edward and Bullet and Chase and Henry and Wayne and Lucky and Meeker (a few of the names the students have given them). Its latest residents are Breezy and her partner, Brooklyn, and their brood: Meggie, Amelia, WilliamR and Charlie.

In the end, the experiment didn’t much help the Elk River site’s pigeon problem. Hauck said the pigeons “pretty much nest in all the areas you don’t want them in, and they make a mess.” So while there’s likely no noticeable difference in the pigeon population since the falcons arrived more than a decade ago, plant employees love watching the birds as they catch pigeons mid-flight — which is how they hunt — Geisler said.

“They’ll eat them in the parking lots down here,” she said. And the employees cheer them on, phones in hand. “[They] send me the videos.”

Geisler herself has grown attached to several falcons over the years. Her favorite was Mary Ellen, a female who spent five years at the plant. Usually, the falcons migrate south in late October, but one year Mary Ellen stayed most of the winter.

“She was only gone for three weeks” before she returned, Geisler said. “It was like, you have wings! Go south.”

But in 2017, something was wrong, Geisler said. She doesn’t know what.

“She didn’t come back to her young, so I know something happened to her,” she said. “Brooklyn, the male that’s here right now, finished raising the young that year.”

But that tenuousness is part of the reality of caretaking falcons. They’re wild creatures that face all sorts of challenges, she said. Most of their young die within their first two years.

For them, learning how to fly and to hunt — mostly smaller birds, which they catch mid-flight — are essential to survival.

“So if they make it past the first two years,” she said, “they’re doing absolutely awesome.”

And with the help of humans and their nesting perches, they’re doing particularly well. The Elk River plant isn’t the only falcon nesting site that might need to be moved in the coming years. Xcel Energy’s Allen S. King power plant along the St. Croix River in Oak Park Heights has a nesting box that will need to be moved as the plant is retired by 2028. Xcel’s largest coal plant, the Sherburne County Generating Station in Becker, is also home to a falcon nesting box.

Some 40 years ago, nesting boxes on skyscrapers and power plants were key to reestablishing the peregrine falcon in the Midwest.

The birds had died out east of the Rocky Mountains, mostly because of the use of the pesticide DDT, which made its way up the food chain from its intended targets — insects — to small birds and eventually raptors like falcons and eagles, which depend on those small birds for food .

Now that the population has been restored, the nesting boxes live on as opportunities for research and education, said Julia Ponder, director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center.

“It gets people watching the skies,” she said.

“The people who typically work in these urban areas in these buildings, they’re just passionate about them,” she said. “That’s an important piece that we need to re-engage our society with the outdoors and nature. We have a lot of sustainability issues we need to address, and the first step is getting people to care.”

And in Elk River, care they do. Geisler, Hauck and several of the falcons’ followers are working through options for replacing or relocating their nesting boxes this winter. And while the peregrines’ migration south has already begun, they hope to have a new solution in place by the time Breezy and Brooklyn — or another pair of falcons — would return.

It might be high amid the treetops or on the edge of another power plant, but the humans who have spent more than a decade as the falcons’ guardians hope that the hill overlooking Elk River where the power plant once stood will still be home.