Peregrine falcons return to Big Cliffs along OR-224
Any day now, three peregrine falcon chicks are expected to fledge from their perch high above Highway 224 along the Clackamas River.
Peregrine falcons, once an endangered species, have been returning to this site in the crevices of the Big Cliffs for decades. Mt. Hood National Forest biologists have been monitoring this specific area since at least the 1990s. This year, however, after the Riverside Fire decimated over 138,000 acres, primarily along the wild and scenic area of the Upper Clackamas, hopes were slim that the birds would return.
The Debris Management Task Force (Task Force) recovery work on OR-224 includes the removal of over 70,000 dead hazard trees that line the burnt highway corridor. The work began in January and it will take crews until at least this fall to make the roadway safe for travelers.
While multiple crews continue to work on the eastern end of the 19-mile highway closure, one tree removal crew had been moved down to the western most section of the closure in an effort to open at least some of the corridor for summer river recreation.
Once that crew reached the Big Cliffs area, a known peregrine falcon habitat about three miles into the closure, they had to pause construction activity. This allowed U.S. Forest Service (USFS) biologists – working with ODOT, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and MB & G [the Task Force’s environmental monitoring firm] – to determine whether the birds had returned to the area.
“Peregrine falcons have nested on the Big Cliffs along Highway 224 for decades, but we weren’t sure if they’d return this year after the Riverside Fire,” explained Rachel LaMedica, then-acting USFS Mt. Hood district ranger.
“We had been monitoring the cliffs for weeks,” added ODOT Environmental Coordinator Mary Young. “We love to see them in their natural habitats. We were watching for them and we truly believed they would be there. We just couldn’t find them.”
Young is part of a group of environmental specialists that work with ODOT’s nationally commended Strategy for Migratory Bird Management and Conservation, which establishes partnerships and formal methods to minimize transportation project impacts on migratory birds and nesting areas.
“Construction season and nesting season are the same season, so it’s always a challenge,” explains Young. And just like the USFS biologists know of the falcons‘ annual migration to the Big Cliffs of OR-224, ODOT knows the nesting locations of most of the migratory birds along our highways.
“We need to know where the birds are so we can plan our maintenance work around the birds we know are coming,” Young explains. “It’s important for the birds, it’s important for the safety of our staff, and ultimately, it’s important for the public that we are both protecting our environment and completing our work.”
The weeks spent searching for the peregrines to return to the Riverside Fire corridor, however, was different than her urban monitoring work: “These are birds in their natural habitat. We are used to seeing them in bridges in downtown Portland and in cities, but to see them in their natural habitats… it’s a biologist’s dream.”
On the very day that the consortium of biologists and wildlife experts had about given up hope that the falcons would return to the severely fire-damaged cliffs, there they were: three downy peregrine chicks about 200 feet up the cliff face.
“It is shocking that the day we decided to move on [and allow hazard tree removal activity to continue] was the day we found them. I’d say we were lucky, but it was actually a lot of really hard work and monitoring, with four agencies – the Forest Service, ODOT, MB & G and APHIS – all watching. That’s why we have these relationships with experts: to help these animals thrive.”
The hazard tree removal work has temporarily skipped over the Big Cliffs area of the closed highway and will backtrack to complete the work when the chicks fledge.
“There is a lot of work to be done out here before we can reopen this highway,” explained On-Scene Incident Commander Jose Villaplando, who had to move the recovery operations crews about a half mile down the road and out of the birds’ line of sight. “Shifting our operations to protect these chicks doesn’t impact our timeline and it’s just the right thing to do. It’s a sign that nature is coming back out here.”
All three chicks have started trying out their wings and are expected to fledge in the next week or so. One or two chicks generally fledge from the Big Cliffs annually, so this clutch of three is better than the average peregrine survival rate.