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Peregrine falcons in N.H. could find an unlikely ally: rock climbers

 Rock climber Dan Affsprung, left, ascends a cliff.
Courtesy
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Rock climber Dan Affsprung, left, ascends a cliff.

Recreationists and wildlife have to coexist. But there are times when wildlife need their distance from the humans that like to explore their habitat. For a handful of sites around New Hampshire, that means closing certain areas over the spring and summer so peregrine falcons can nest.

Peregrines were considered endangered until the late 1990s, but they’re still a threatened species in New Hampshire. With the help of New Hampshire Fish and Game and New Hampshire Audubon, 40-year effort has brought many of them back.

One of the people responsible for peregrine falcon monitoring and restoration in the Granite State is Chris Martin, who’s a wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Audubon. He works with New Hampshire Fish and Game, traveling around the state to monitor the 25 to 30 pairs of peregrines that nest everywhere from bridges to rock faces. One of those places is the Rumney Rocks Climbing Area outside of Plymouth.

Martin travels out to Rumney, hikes up to observation points, and notes where the falcons are nesting. He then marks off those areas with bright orange signs that indicate closures and when they will be lifted. He tries to make the closures as minimal as possible.

“We have to actually determine [where the falcons are] as early as we can so once they've started to nest so that we put the appropriate closure up,” Martin said.

A handful of peregrine falcon pairs nest at Rumney for several weeks, and during that time it’s vital that the eggs incubate. One of the falcons in the pair must be on top of the nest at all times, and falcons can get spooked by someone who comes too close to a nest. At Rumney, that could easily be one of the many climbers that come out in the warmer months.

“The bird on the nest would come off… exposing the eggs to either heat or cold or the potential of a predator,” Martin said.

peregrine_falcon_by_duncan_hull_via_flickr.jpg
Duncan Hull
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Courtesy Duncan Hull via Vlickr (https://flic.kr/p/bA7FsW)
There are about 25 to 30 pairs of peregrine falcons that nest in New Hampshire

This year, the closure was concentrated at the Main Cliff in Rumney, one of the most popular areas for climbers. On weekends, you’re bound to see license plates from Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, even Quebec. Climbers like the feel and quality of New Hampshire’s towering granite.

Among them is Dan Affsprung. He’s a community college teacher and avid climber who’s been at the sport for nine years. Rumney has many cliffs climbers can access, unlike some areas that just have one. Affsprung said that means the closure of the Main Cliff, although it’s very popular, isn’t too big of a deal, except if you’re projecting. In climbing lingo, “projecting” means working on a specific route over and over again until you can climb it perfectly without any falls.

“If you had a project at Main Cliff that you thought you were going to finish and then the closure came along, that could be, potentially, a really significant disruption to your climbing,” Affsprung said. “And if you’re a serious climber, a significant disruption to your life.”

So, closures for peregrine falcons can really set a climber back on their goals, but Affsprung said most climbers understand the importance of their sport coexisting with nature and wildlife. They have a personal motivation. Not respecting the rules could mean losing access to these natural places.

“Even people who disagree with the ban and think it’s overkill or something would respect it because, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s not so much about the impact you might be having as what you'd be jeopardizing violating the ban,” Affsprung said.

Affsprung has a potential solution to limiting the closures even more in area and timeframe: enlist the help of climbers. He said many climbers he knows would be willing to work with New Hampshire Fish and Game and Audubon to scale routes and scout out exactly where peregrines are in the hopes of minimizing closures.

“I know there are people who would go and do that,” Affsprung.

Martin, from New Hampshire Audubon, said he could be on board with the idea If climbers had the proper training and experience. He said he’s worked with some climbers before to help with monitoring.

“The problem is that it's a very diverse community with lots of skill levels, not only in their climbing ethics and as far as wildlife and all the rest goes, but their knowledge of the birds,” Martin said. “So it's a big challenge to try to do that without other verification.”

But if a climber had that knowledge and experience and wanted to help out, Martin said they could contact New Hampshire Audubon or New Hampshire Fish and Game and express an interest in doing peregrine falcon monitoring.

A partnership could limit closures even more in the future, but Martin said, for now, the system in place seems to be working really well. The closures at Rumney opened up about two weeks ago and they were successful. The peregrines managed to fledge three babies.

“That's definitely a success this year,” Martin said.

Julia Furukawa joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing All Things Considered after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.