For the Birds
Blanket closures seem overkill, but climbers did help save the birds.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 175 (March 2009).
I was nearly nodding off at the belay when I heard it. The sun sets early in Yosemite Valley, especially in the dregs of October, and we had been racing the darkness—and mostly losing—every night on the Nose of El Capitan. I was exhausted enough to forget the discomfort of an ass-numbing belay and was drifting asleep when I heard what sounded like a rock falling past. The whiz oddly tickled the inside of my ear.
My head turned instinctively toward the sound, just in time for me to catch the bird in the complete freedom of its fall. Seeing a peregrine dive—wings tucked and rocketing toward its prey at 200 mph—is not something you forget. It’s one of those little gifts for spending enough time outside, like watching a desert primrose unfurl its petals at dusk at Indian Creek or crossing paths with an elusive pearly white ptarmigan on the way to an ice climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. But catching sight of a peregrine isn’t that rare, at least not these days.
I’ve also watched peregrines swoop through the skies in North Carolina, West Virginia, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. In all these states, and across the continent, climbing areas are closed to protect the falcons for large parts of the year. And I’ll be straight: I love the birds, but hate the closures. I realize that’s a dicey stance, given that climbers are always forging and re-forging delicate alliances with land managers. And the power dynamic is a little lopsided: land managers all, climbers none. On top of that, green is the new black, so professing an opinion that sounds in any way anti-wildlife probably won’t win me too many popularity points. But here’s the deal: peregrine falcons, which were removed from the endangered species list nearly a decade ago, were actually saved in part by climbers, and there’s little evidence, if any, that climbers are jeopardizing them now.
Nearly 30 years ago, Rob Roy Ramey II wrote in his journal, “I am suddenly wrenched from my dreams by a ringing telephone. Just to make sure that the person on the other end is sincere, I let it ring 14 times.”
Rob was then just an upstart—the call, asking him to help with a “nest manipulation” at Hurricane Point outside of Monterrey, California, was the first of dozens, maybe hundreds, he would get over the next decade as a more or less on-call peregrine rescuer. He was handy with ropes and knew a thing or two about big walls and biology, which was enough to land a work-study job as an undergrad with the Santa Cruz Predatory Research Group to help restore the peregrines, whose populations had been decimated by the use of pesticides, particularly DDT.
“If you fall, fall on your face so you won’t break the eggs,” Rob was instructed. He was to climb to peregrine nests, remove the eggs, and bring them back down in padded Tupperware in a backpack.
Over the years, Rob tenderly scooped peregrine eggs, the shells weakened from the pesticides, out of nests on Western cliffs from the proud sandstone faces of Zion to El Capitan itself. After the eggs were incubated in the safety of a lab, he climbed back to the nests, the baby birds squawking from a wooden box strapped to his back, to place them in the nests, where the falcon moms would take over raising them in the wild. Over the years Rob and the Peregrine Fund, started by Cornell’s Tom Cade in 1970, sucked in wayward climbing bums of every ilk to help, even including the falconer-turned-climbing-hard-man (turned surfer) Yvon Chouinard.
Rob and I sit in an enormous eagle’s nest above the swollen river that is Boulder Creek. One of my daisies is attached to a fixed rope via my ascender, and my other is hooked to a cam shoved behind a crack coated with the shiny remnants of wood-rat shit. Rob has measured the eagle’s nest, which has been left vacant this year by a pair of birds who flew to the crags across the highway, at 7 feet by 4.5 feet and 3.5 feet deep. The great solid platform doesn’t even shift beneath our weight.
The aptly named Eagle Rock in Boulder Canyon, where this nest is tucked under a massive overhang, was closed earlier this year while wildlife officials waited to see which of their several options the birds would choose. This year the birds passed over the digs at Eagle Rock (probably because of feather lice, Rob guessed), giving me a chance to get a feel, for at least a few minutes, for what it might be like to call this nest home. Every single twig and stick was chosen and flown up to this rock one by one under wing power. The nest doesn’t look like it should stick to this gently sloping ledge, but it’s solid. I scratch my fingers across the nest, searching for shell fragments. Rob, who now lives in Nederland, Colorado, chats about eagles—whose populations were also devastated by DDT—and closures. Inspired by his work with peregrines, he earned a PhD in ecology and evolution from Cornell, and now he runs his own business consulting on endangered species across the globe, from African elephants in Namibia to the tiny Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse in his own backyard.
In late September, nine years after he began his peregrine rescues, Rob showed up in the Valley for one of the most spectacular (and ridiculous, not to mention dangerous) missions of his career.
“We’re way in and it’s going to be tits,” John “Yabo” Yablonsky had said when Rob recruited him for a long, icy trip up the shaded face of Half Dome to check and see if peregrines had been using a nest just a few feet off route of the Arctic Sea (VI 5.10 A4).
More than a week’s worth of effort followed, leaving Rob fried. This whole project has grown out of proportion and into a nightmare for me, he wrote while enduring another frigid storm from his portaledge. I swear that this is the last bird project venture I will ever do in Yosemite again. It just simply isn’t worth it to me anymore.
Yabo and Rob had been joined by Troy Johnson, making the team an unlikely trio: a mad man, a scientist and a stout climber of few words. The route had been trying to smack the climbers from the beginning, with waves of storms and difficult aid placements. The seventh pitch of the rarely repeated climb took even the indomitable Yabo 11 hours over two days to scrap his way up. The team brought a tape recorder and listened to Jimi Hendrix for breakfast and the Rolling Stones in the rain to keep their spirits up. But as on all wall climbs, the days of cold canned food, the epically slow drip upwards of hard aid climbing, and the claustrophobic cramp of the ledge—grew old, especially when the motivation, the objective, wasn’t their own.
Eventually—after a couple of trips back to the ground and at least one barely avoided fistfight—the climbers made it to the peregrines’ nest, which was tucked in a nook to the climber’s right of Ice Station Zebra, a miserable ribbon of a platform and the sole horizontal real estate on the route.
Rob collected shell fragments from the nest for biologists on the ground to study—and then got the hell down, too sick of aid climbing to care about topping out.
In most places where I have lived, the bird closures, many of which have been in effect since January, are finally lifted in late summer. I notice that folks in Colorado are lining up for their turns on more-often-closed-than-open classics, including Eldorado Canyon’s Naked Edge and Wunsch’s Dihedral in the South Platte.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service estimates there are 3,000 breeding pairs of peregrine falcons in North America, perhaps more now than before pesticides ravaged their populations. Many peregrines nest in skyscrapers and on bridges, seemingly unfazed by the noise and commotion of the urban world. Peregrines have made an amazing comeback. But it wasn’t because climbers stayed out of their territory, it was because DDT was banned and people in the 1970s and 80s—climbers like Rob, Yabo and Troy—put their asses on the line to make sure the baby birds survived.
On our day at Eagle Rock, Rob told me that not a single chick that he knows of—even after being hauled up a climb and placed into a nest by a human—was abandoned by its parents. It seems unlikely to me, except if someone climbs straight through a nest, that climbers could ever really endanger peregrines.
Blanket bird closures aren’t necessary. They don’t save birds. I’m not advocating for opening all climbs under all circumstances, just that closing whole cliffs isn’t scientifically sound.
Even Bill Heinrich, a biologist for the Peregrine Fund, seems to agree. The best thing would be to leave it to the judgment of the climbers, he told me. If a bird is screeching at you, he said, go somewhere else.
A postscript by Rob Roy Ramey II, who kept his word and never did another bird project again:
You see, [by the Half Dome trip] the peregrine missions had gotten out of hand and it was becoming absurd what we were risking our lives for. By that time, the birds had recovered in the Southwest, although the coastal and a few inland birds were still showing signs of [egg-shell] thinning. On a personal level, I had done my part and had dodged bullets a few too many times, at least many a loose rock on those climbs. And the level of the climbs just kept ratcheting up. If I kept going, one of those loose rocks would have my name on it. It was time to get out.
Laura Snider loves to play Scrabble and eat bacon. She also loves to sit in her office at the Daily Camera in Boulder—where she covers science and environmental issues—and think about all the times she used to get outside and go climbing.
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