Bad year for baby birds in New Brunswick, says wildlife biologist

Peregrine falcons at Hopewell Rocks have failed to produce any viable young this year for the first time, and theirs isn't the only empty nest across New Brunswick, according to a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Resource Development.

Joe Kennedy says there are about 16 nests the department keeps an eye on each year and he's checked on about half of them so far. Of those, only one has chicks, he said.

"It looks like it's not great for peregrines this season."

Kennedy suspects the unusually cold, wet spring is to blame. Peregrines nest on rock ledges with very limited shelter so their eggs are susceptible to poor weather conditions, he said.

Peregrines are considered a species at risk. The population dropped dramatically in the 1960s due to the use of DDT and other pesticides. In 1982, a program was established to reintroduce the peregrine falcon to the Bay of Fundy and there are now roughly a dozen nesting pairs a year in the province.

The weather has also had a negative impact on other birds, noted Kennedy. Biologists are reporting a delayed breeding season for several species, he said.

Paul Gaudet, manager of interpretive services at Hopewell Rocks, said it's only the second time in about 20 years this has happened in the province.

"It's certainly the first time for us" at the provincial park.

Gaudet said staff at the popular tourist attraction at Hopewell Cape, along the Bay of Fundy, are "dismayed." They posted about the grim news on their Facebook page Tuesday night "with heavy hearts."

Peregrine falcons have been nesting at the site for about a decade and it's always an exciting time of year for staff who watch for them and point them out to guests, said Gaudet.

Fascinating birds

"Everybody's quite fascinated with the bird that's, you know, pretty much the fastest living thing on Earth and can dive at about 400 kilometres an hour."

Peregrine falcons have "incomparable flight skills," he said, describing them as an "aerial ballet."

Watching the male hunt for smaller birds and then transfer the prey to the female mid-air is particularly captivating, said Gaudet. The female turns upside down, takes the prey in her talons and then flies back to the nest to feed.

"I mean, that's pretty fascinating stuff to watch."

Kevin Snair

Staff and tourists alike also delight in spectacles from one of the high lookouts, said Gaudet. Oftentimes one of the falcons will swoop in on a draft and "just hang in the air.

"Then just like a jet fighter coming in to join in a formation, the other one would swoop in and they'd both be right there, just floating in the air like 10 feet away right at eye level with the wind blowing — it's just amazing."

Staff knew where the birds were nesting this year and saw them flying in and out but didn't see any signs of eggs. So they lowered a camera into the nest when the birds were gone and discovered the nest was empty.

Although some chicks have died at the site over the years, this is the first time a nest has been completely inactive, said Gaudet.

"We don't want it to happen again, but we have no control over it. That's good ol' Mother Nature."

In the meantime, staff are urging New Brunswickers to keep their eyes open for any peregrine nesting activity. An exhaustive provincewide survey has not been completed so there could be undiscovered nests out there.

Anyone who finds one is asked to contact the Department of Natural Resources.