Notes From the Field: Coastal Raptors

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"Notes from the Field” are contributed articles that highlight current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. This article focuses on a long-term raptor monitoring project in Washington state.

Female Peregrine Falcon with visual ID band H/4 on the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington

Female Peregrine Falcon with visual ID band H/4 on the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington. (Credit: Rob Palmer, Falcon Photos.)

“Notes From the Field” news articles highlight the continued importance of bird banding in celebration of the centennial of the Bird Banding Lab. This article was contributed by Dan Varland, who has been studying Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) and other raptors in the Pacific Northwest for over 25 years.

Today, banding allows scientists to track birds’ behavior, migration, lifespans, populations, diseases and levels of environmental contaminants. Information gathered through the North American Bird Banding Program helps inform management and conservation decisions for game and non-game species, such as protecting or restoring habitat, setting hunting regulations and determining plans for human-led development.  The North American Bird Banding Program depends on a network of over 10,000 permitted bird banders working in the United States, Canada and Trust Territories. Each year these banders help us add up to 1.2 million new banding records to our century-long dataset.

Dan Varland shows a banded Peregrine Falcon to a group on the beach at Ocean Shores, Washington, just before the bird is release

Dan Varland shows a banded Peregrine Falcon to a group on the beach at Ocean Shores, Washington, just before the bird is released. (Credit: Charlie Varland, Coastal Raptors.)

How do you use bird banding in your research?

In 1995, a group of researchers and community scientists started monitoring raptors on Washington’s coastal beaches through vehicle surveys and banding, with primary focus on Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus). Since then, more than 1,200 surveys have been completed and 232 Peregrine Falcons have been banded with both USGS bands and colored leg bands with unique codes, also called visual identification bands. Because each bird had a unique color and code on its visual identification band, we can identify individuals without recapturing them, and use these observations of individuals to answer questions about Peregrine Falcon populations.  Beginning in 2000, our project also began taking tissue samples for contaminants and infectious disease testing, as well as genetics research.

Male Peregrine Falcon with visual identification band W/Z north of Ocean Shores, Washington in 2012. Banded as a first-year bird

Male Peregrine Falcon with visual identification band W/Z north of Ocean Shores, Washington in 2012. Banded as a first-year bird, he was resighted on the Washington coast 23 times between 2007 and 2015. He was recovered dead after colliding with a powerline at age 8. (Credit: Kate Davis, Coastal Raptors.)

Why was this project started?

I, Dan Varland, had become aware of the potential for Peregrine Falcon research in coastal Washington after reading “New Evidence of a Peregrine Migration on the West Coast of North America”, a chapter in the 1988 book, Peregrine Falcon Populations: Their Management and Recovery. Using band return data from the Bird Banding Lab’s long-term data set and published  accounts, the authors concluded that the Pacific Coast is an important migratory pathway for Peregrine Falcons. Although some banding had been done in coastal Washington in the 1980s, relatively few birds from this area had been marked. In 1995, I got my state and federal banding permits and started the project. Volunteers helped me survey and band birds on weekends and some mornings before work. In 2009, I founded and became Executive Director of the non-profit organization Coastal Raptors, creating my dream job! Over the 25 years of the project, more than 500 people have volunteered to help with surveys and banding. We've even created a music video about the importance of reporting observations of banded birds using www.reportband.gov!

What questions are you trying to answer through your research?

For Peregrine Falcons, we would like to learn:

  • What is the relative abundance of the three North American subspecies?  
  • What is the overall population trend?
  • What are the levels of exposure to contaminants and contagious pathogens?
  • How can visual identification bands help us learn more about site fidelity, migration patterns, and survival rates?  

Why are Peregrine Falcons so interesting?

It’s interesting and important to study a species that for decades was on the Endangered Species list. It wasn’t until 1999, four years into our study, that Peregrines were delisted. We’ve recently published a paper on Peregrine survival rates based on 22 years of surveys, banding, resightings and band recoveries. The results show survival rates comparable to other regions were Peregrines have been studied, suggesting healthy populations: 42% for hatch-year (less than 1 year old); 66% for second-year (1–2 years old) and 74% for after-second-year (more than 2 years old).

Dan Varland and Sandra Miller draw a blood sample for contaminants and disease testing.

Dan Varland and Sandra Miller draw a blood sample for contaminants and disease testing. (Credit: Tom Rowley, Coastal Raptors. )

When driving the beach, we often observe Peregrines at close range as long as we stay in the vehicle. We like watching their behavior, especially when it involves hunting flights. After 25 years of research on coastal Peregrines, we’ve learned quite a lot. For me, the biggest surprise has been finding that the fastest animal on Earth, which can stoop (dive toward prey) at over 230 mph, will also stoop to scavenging! By 2018, we had observed scavenging on the study area on 49 occasions, and 34 of these observations involved banded Peregrines. These banded birds allowed a deeper understanding of scavenging behavior. For example, we have observed that some individuals may scavenge more than once and some scavenge both when they are young and as adults. 

Peregrine H/7 in adult plumage, 7 years after she was banded. She was photographed on the south side of the Columbia River

Peregrine H/7 in adult plumage, 7 years after she was banded. She was photographed on the south side of the Columbia River in Oregon, 12 miles south of her banding location. (Credit: Owen L Schmidt, Coastal Raptors.)

How has bird banding changed over the course of your career?

I began with the BBL as a subpermittee in 1979 and received a Master Personal Permit in 1981. I banded mostly Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls as a community college biology instructor in Iowa, 1979-1987. In 1991, I completed a PhD in Animal Ecology at Iowa State University where my research had been on the post-fledging stage in American Kestrels. Kestrels were banded, leg-flagged, and, in some cases fitted with radio-transmitters. The number and type of markers available to banders has increased greatly, especially in recent years. For example, visual identification bands now are available for small raptors including American Kestrels and Merlins.

What’s next for your project?

In 2021, I plan to seek authorization to attach GSM transmitters, which use GPS and cell-phone technologies to transmit bird location data to researchers, allowing us to conduct studies of habitat use without having to observe the birds directly. Attaching these transmitters to Peregrine Falcons will help answer research questions that we have been unable to address through banding alone, such as:  

  • Where do the Peregrines that occur on the study beaches by day roost at night? 
  • Where do they summer?
  • What is the full extent of their migration?

To learn more about our project and what we have found by banding, visit the Coastal Raptors website.

The “Notes From the Field” series highlights current banding projects and the continued importance of bird banding 100 years after the establishment of the Bird Banding Lab. Want to see your project featured in a future “Notes From the Field” article? Email Jenn Malpass jmalpass@usgs.gov for submission details.

 

Dan Varland stops to read the visual ID band on a Peregrine Falcon north of Ocean Shores, Washington.

Dan Varland stops to read the visual ID band on a Peregrine Falcon north of Ocean Shores, Washington. (Credit: Dale Larson, Coastal Raptors.)