25 years of falcons: Hamilton Falconwatch celebrates milestone birthday

Hamilton Falconwatch tuns 25 years old this summer — and the chick-savers are looking for new members.

Group hosting info session at library on Thursday

This image of Lily was captured on the webcam on March 24. (Hamilton Falconwatch)

Learning to fly is tough — especially when you're a few weeks old and 18 stories above ground.

So, over the past quarter century, a team of dedicated volunteers has carefully watched — and often rescued — dozens of baby falcons spreading their wings from a nest site high on Hamilton's Sheraton Hotel.

Many of those chicks might have died without Hamilton FalconWatch, a volunteer group that monitors the city's now famous Peregrine Falcons.

The group turns 25 this year.  While that milestone is a chance to look back at years of success  —there's an event at the Hamilton Public Library Thursday — the group also has an eye on an uncertain future: volunteer numbers are dwindling and they're looking for new members.

25 years, dozens of falcon chicks

The hotel falcons are now beloved members of the city, but one was first spotted near the Sheraton in 1994. The next year, a pair of birds — named 'Mom' and 'Dad' — was found nesting on a ledge by the 18th floor, starting the long tradition of Peregrines nesting in downtown.

"It was terrific," said Mike Street, senior monitor with FalconWatch — Peregrine Falcons were once an endangered species but are now in recovery. 

The local group became part of a continent-wide effort to protect the species. In the beginning days of FalconWatch, "we were all learning," said Street — but things happened fast.

Public monitoring of the birds is now streamed live online, but in the early days, a vacant storefront in Jackson Square had closed-circuit TV monitors.

The first chick they had to rescue was Mom and Dad's first baby, named 'Hamilton.'

One of four new Peregrine Falcon chicks banded at the Sheraton Hotel last year. (Adam Carter/CBC)

A volunteer noticed Hamilton wasn't in the nest one day; he had quietly flown across the street to the top of the art gallery.

The chick stayed there for a couple of days — before dropping into King Street during 6 p.m. traffic.

"It was scary," remembers Street. A nearby police officer stopped traffic while volunteers rescued the bird.

Shaky starts

Over the next two decades, Hamilton FalconWatch made 24 rescues and watched 62 babies leave the nest.

If a chick falls or gets stuck, they'll make sure it isn't injured then bring it back to the hotel roof.

"Usually the first couple of flights are a little shaky," said Street, noting only two chicks have died during the fledging period. "The landings are usually the tough part."

Those chicks — each with a distinctive name — have ended up across North America, in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York State, and even Kentucky.

The mother bird was less than enthused about the entire process during the banding of chicks in 2018. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Some chicks started families of their own. Some died after leaving, colliding with buildings, cars and airplanes. Some had life adventures along the way.

The chicks have personalities, said Street — and some have great stories.

One chick named George went to London, Ont., booting out another male and taking over a nest with three chicks. But George became a single father when his mate died in an electrical storm -- so he had raised the three new babies on his own.

A chick named Hal was a true "survivor" after leaving the nest in 2001: he seemed to live through electric shock, only to get caught in a net. But Hal was still found in "great shape and acting his typical feisty self," the website says.

From Mom to Madame X

Hamiltonians might remember the parade of adult falcons who have mated in the hotel nest over the years, including Toledo, Mozart, Newbie, Madame X and Surge.

Madame X, who was in Hamilton from 2001 to 2015,  "was a favourite of everybody," said Street.

"She defended the nest, defended the chicks, and was an absolutely gorgeous bird," said Street, "To watch her fly it was really something."

But as with any family, there's been drama — like when a new female, Lily, arrived and Madame X disappeared after more than a decade.

A young falcon from 2016. Dozens of falcons have been born at the Hamilton Sheraton Hotel over the last two decades. (Falconwatch)

"We have to presume that Lily and Madame X had a fight and Madame X got injured," said Street.

They kept hoping to hear a sighting of Madame X — but she was never seen again.

Street has fond memories of watching the adults teach their young to fly, or when a volunteer had to go on a rooftop to rescue a chick.

He remembers one precocious chick named Ancaster, who made her first flight from the Sheraton to the top of the Stelco building in one fell swoop.

"I'd never seen it before," Street said. "But boy did she ever go."

The original 'Dad' (later renamed Percy)' had real fathering instincts, Street said; when two foster chicks were placed in the nest, it only took him eight minutes to bring back a pigeon to feed his adopted babies.

A 2015 chick, McMaster, sitting in the bucket waiting for a weigh-in. (Jeff Green/CBC)

Four chicks to hatch this year

The city's current adult pair, Lily and Ossie, are now in their fifth nesting season. They laid four eggs this year, which are expected to start hatching in May.

Last year there were four chicks — but one was killed by a car while learning to fly.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Canadian Peregrine Foundation, in partnership with the Hamilton Community Peregrine Project, puts identifying bands on their chicks each year so they can keep track of the species' growth and spread.

Three weeks of falcon watching

Monitoring falcons is a labour of love for Hamilton Falconwatch volunteers.

For three weeks in summer, volunteers are on King Street from dawn to dusk, usually from mid-June through early July.

But numbers have dwindled, Street said, and they're looking for new people.

This climber helped package away the falcon chicks so they could be safely taken inside for banding in 2018. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Hamilton Falconwatch is hosting an information session on Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Hamilton Public Library at 55 York Blvd.

There's also an orientation session for new volunteers on May 25.

Volunteering can mean "hours of boredom and moments of panic" -- but it's worth it to know dozens of new falcons are entering the wild, says Street.

People can watch the falcons via a live webcam and find more information through the group's website.