- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2009

DUMFRIES, Va.

On a smokestack catwalk high above Possum Point Power Station, Bryan Watts and Libby Mojica carefully made their way to a nesting box where two peregrine falcon chicks were waiting.

As the chicks’ parents hovered nearby, screeching with concern, Mr. Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary, and Miss Mojica, a research biologist, carefully placed the month-old birds in cardboard carriers Thursday for their brief visit to the ground 310 feet below.

There the avian brothers would be weighed, measured and banded in the latest triumph of a creature that had all but disappeared from Virginia skies only a few decades ago.

Mr. Watts took one of the chicks, holding it firmly as workers and officials at the Dominion Virginia Power plant in Dumfries gathered around to snap pictures and marvel at its shrieking call and sharp talons.

“They have a heavy coat of down now, but they’ll be losing that in about a week or so,” Mr. Watts said.

Miss Mojica used pliers to fasten a “field-readable” green-and-black band to each leg. The bands allow researchers to more easily identify the pair in the wild.

It would seem that a power plant would be the last place falcons would choose to nest.

But Mr. Watts says the birds see things from a different perspective. The plant overlooks a vast landscape along the Potomac River and Quantico Creek.

“Falcons like high-domain positions. In the mountains, that equates to cliff sites. On the coastal plain, that means bridges, tall buildings, or in this case, smokestacks. In a lot of ways, it’s an ideal place.”

It’s a little more intimidating for their human watchers, who must take a small elevator up the stack while trying not to look down. And falcons, Mr. Watts says, can be aggressive defending their young. He and Miss Mojica wore hard hats, gloves and safety glasses. During a nest visit on the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge over the James River in Prince George County, “a very aggressive female hit me in the side of the face,” Mr. Watts said.

In an effort to hasten the falcons’ comeback in Virginia, Dominion installed the nesting box at Possum Point 10 years ago.

It was vacant until last year. Then the chicks’ parents moved in but produced no offspring. They returned this year and had better luck.

Dominion has nesting boxes at three other power plants, but only this one is occupied.

In a few weeks, the chicks will venture out on the catwalk and make their first tentative flights.

“They’ll be hanging around for awhile,” Mr. Watts said, as they learn to catch prey and hone other survival skills. Then they’ll leave.

“They will wander wildly, from Canada to the tropics for a year or two,” he said. “When they come back, they’ll typically breed between Virginia and New Jersey.”

The Possum Point falcons are among only 20 nesting pairs known in Virginia. Bridges and high-rise buildings are also favored spots.

The William & Mary center and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries monitor the population, which has hovered at a little more than 20 pairs each year since 2006.

Jeff Marcell, environmental supervisor at Possum Point, said workers have to be careful accessing emissions-monitoring equipment near the nesting box so as to not disturb the birds, which have been making themselves at home.

“We held a naming contest for them,” he said.

Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh will soon soar somewhere overhead.

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