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Originally published Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Local scientists track peregrine falcons' epic migration

Where can a falcon find a little privacy these days? Not downtown Seattle. And not the coast of South America, either. Thanks to local researchers...

Seattle Times science reporter

Keep tabs on the falcons

Seattle falcons: Updates on the WaMu falcons and other pairs nesting in Seattle are available at: www.frg.org/U_PEFA.htm

Migrating falcons: The migrating falcons can be tracked at: www.frg.org/SC_PEFA.htm. (Viewing the Google Earth maps requires a free download.)

Where can a falcon find a little privacy these days?

Not downtown Seattle. And not the coast of South America, either.

Thanks to local researchers, bird-lovers can once again spy on the daily drama of peregrine falcons nesting atop the Washington Mutual Tower at Third Avenue and Seneca Street.

And for the first time, the curious also can track the progress of peregrines embarked on one of the world's great migrations — 9,000 miles from the southern tip of Chile to the Arctic.

"You can turn on your computer and see exactly where these birds are," said Bud Anderson, director of the Skagit County-based Falcon Research Group. "This is cutting-edge stuff."

The downtown raptors are being watched by a video camera trained on their nest box more than 55 stories up. Technical problems have so far foiled attempts to stream the video on the Web this season, but a monitor in the ground-floor bank lobby carries the avian soap opera live.

The migrating birds, which are a different subspecies than the stay-at-home Seattle falcons, were trapped in South America by Anderson and his colleagues and outfitted with tiny transmitters. Twice a day, the instruments beam coordinates to a satellite. Each bird's location is then plotted on Google Earth's landscape maps.

With GPS chips accurate to about 60 feet, the transmitters can pinpoint the lake or hillside where a falcon roosted for the night, said Anderson, who is trying to unravel the birds' migration patterns.

"The amount of detail you can see on the Google Earth maps is just amazing."

Peregrines are the world's fastest birds, reaching speeds up to 200 mph as they nail their prey in midair. The predators' near extinction from pesticide poisoning in the 1960s helped spur an environmental movement and inspired a generation of raptor enthusiasts, including Anderson.

Viewing 24-7

Seattle's love affair with peregrines dates back to the mid-1990s, when the species started to rebound. Drawn by skyscrapers that resemble cliffs and an abundant supply of pigeons, a few of the birds adopted an urban lifestyle.

Beginning in 1994, peregrines took up residence on the 772-foot WaMu tower, Seattle's second-tallest building. A mated pair named Stewart and Bell delighted downtown office workers for nearly 10 years as they raised brood after brood in a nest box that provided a safe platform for eggs and awkward young chicks.

Volunteers helped rig the first video camera, which drew throngs to WaMu's lobby.

Stewart disappeared in 2003. Bell died in 2005. Ruth Taylor, a volunteer who has tracked peregrines in Western Washington for more than 15 years, found the female's body just two blocks from the nest.

Over the past three years a succession of young peregrines has attempted to set up housekeeping at WaMu with limited success. Filming was equally sporadic.

Now, the camera is rolling full time. The new falcon couple have been incubating three eggs, two of which have hatched this week.

Charting the migration

Taylor also logs on daily to check out the South American peregrines, who started their northward journey last month.

"It's making me go to my atlas to find out where some of these places are," Taylor said.

Supported by money from private contributors, Anderson and his co-workers have radio-tagged 11 birds over the past two years. The $4,000 transmitters fit like backpacks and weigh less than an ounce. Powered by the sun, they can last up to three years.

At least one of the birds was killed in a collision with a car. Others have gone missing, possibly because their transmitters blinked out.

Six of the birds, called American tundra peregrines, are on the wing and sending out signals. "These falcons will breed on Baffin Island, Hudson Bay, in Alaska, the Northwest Territories — nobody has ever known for sure where," Anderson said. "This is showing us for the first time how they migrate."

On their eight- to 14-week journey, the birds average about 150 miles daily. One falcon flew more than 500 miles in a single day.

A male, nicknamed Sparrow King for his skill at skewering the small, winged snacks, traveled from the west coast of South America through the central United States to Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic last year. His return trip took him down the East Coast of the United States. He seems to be traveling the same route this year — only faster, Anderson said.

"He went like wildfire up through the Central American countries."

Basic homebodies

After breeding in the Arctic, the birds will head back to South America in the early fall.

Though impressive, the peregrines' trek is not the longest animal migration. Seabirds called sooty shearwaters log 40,000 miles round trip in their annual pilgrimage between New Zealand and the North Pacific.

Most peregrines, including those who breed in Washington, are homebodies who stay in the same place year-round.

With their reliance on Arctic habitat, the migratory tundra peregrines could find their respite from pesticide poisoning short-lived if global warming transforms their breeding grounds, Anderson said.

"We're concerned about what the future holds for these birds."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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