The first thing we see, gliding across the cliff face, is the shadow: two perfectly sharp wings; a long, fluted tail; the curved point of a beak. It shoots up the rock wall, heedless of gravity, and then we see, in flesh and feathers, what we came for—one of Acadia’s three mating pairs of Peregrine Falcons.
“I’ve always had a thing for predators,” says Thomas Guillebeau, Acadia National Park’s raptor intern. “I don’t know what it is. God, these guys are about perfect at what they do.”
It’s Guillebeau’s job to make sure that these extra-special guests—the peregrines—are not disturbed by Acadia’s other visitors—the humans. Acadia, the country’s ninth-most-visited national park, provides excellent nesting habitat for peregrines, and it always had healthy numbers of them. Or at least it did until about 1956. That’s when the species’ population took a steep dive, thanks to DDT and hunting. In 1984, with DDT banned and hunting no longer a serious threat, Acadia hosted a hacking program to reestablish peregrines within the park. (Hacking is the controlled release of captive-bred birds from nest boxes.) It’s been quite successful, thanks in part to the features that had originally made Acadia an attractive nesting option: plenty of rocky cliff faces and lots of food.
Coincidentally, this rugged landscape is also why I—and many of Acadia’s more than 2.5 million annual visitors—have come to the park. This particular peregrine we’re watching has a nest right above the Precipice, Acadia’s most popular hiking trail.
“In a given day that trail can get 600 to 1,000 people,” park wildlife biologist Bruce Connery tells me. When the birds arrive in March, all is quiet. “They get set up, they lay their eggs, and everything’s going along fine.” But when school gets out in June, “everything changes.” It’s like a party arrived, but the falcons missed the invitation.
So the park tries to keep the visitors at bay. “It’s about reducing stress,” Connery explains. Since the first mating pair arrived in 1991, Acadia has closed down the trails that pass near the nests while the parents and chicks roost, hatch, and fledge. “In the early 1990s you would have thought we were closing Maine down,” Connery says, remembering the initial reaction to the park’s decision. “Okay, Maine’s closed, you can’t come anymore.”
But eventually people seemed to accept that staying away from the nests is good for birds—and possibly good for people, too. Protective falcons can be downright dangerous on precarious trails. “This one is steep and really difficult to climb anyway,” Guillebeau says, gesturing above us to the Precipice Trail, Acadia’s most dangerous. In the past 30 years three hikers have died hiking it. “So if you have adult birds dive on you, it’s not so much that they are going to hurt you, it’s that you’re going to get distracted and fall.” Although none of those deaths can be laid at the feet of peregrines, the number may be lower thanks to the trail closures.
“For the most part people have adapted,” Connery says. So has the park. While the trail is closed, its parking lot becomes home to the Peregrine Watch program. The Acadia raptor internship, which began about a decade ago, looks for candidates who can help visitors get the most out of the experience. During a Peregrine Watch, Guillebeau, along with other interpretive rangers, set up Swarovski spotting scopes (“Don’t touch!”) and laminated pictures of hatchlings, peregrines in flight, and hack boxes to welcome the droves of curious passersby and amateur ornithologists. Guillebeau will interact with thousands of people before the summer is over. More than 250 people stopped by the Precipice parking lot one morning this past June—before the park’s busy season had even begun.
“I became semi-obsessed five or six years ago,” Guillebeau says of his work with birds of prey. He found an injured vulture on the side of a road in Georgia, his home state. “I picked him up, and it took me about a week to get rid of him,” he adds. (Although he eventually found a nice rehab center for the bird, the encounter sticks with him. He’s off-duty today in Acadia, and instead of the normal ranger uniform he’s wearing a vulture T-shirt that says “Bald is Beautiful.”)
“I took him to the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia, and I talked to them about volunteering.” The center had a year-and-a-half-long waiting list for volunteers, but staffers, seeing Guillebeau’s interest in birds of prey, suggested he check out the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive,” he says, but “I just fell head over heels in love with the place. I ended up driving back every single weekend for a couple of years. That’s where this whole fiasco started.” Now, with several years of experience with raptors and environmental education under his belt, he’s traveled all the way to Acadia.
Some kind of aquatic bird flew by—maybe an eider—and I ask Guillebeau if he knew what it was. He turned around but didn’t see it in time. “Was it flapping hard?” he asks. It was probably waterfowl. “They always look like they’re having a hard time.”
Guillebeau says his work at Acadia is more about education than conservation—the peregrines do a good job of taking care of themselves. For now, in addition to the Peregrine Watch program, he runs a Junior Ranger station, where kids (and sometimes adults) can learn about and touch animal skins and bird skulls. Still, he has to stop the occasional overeager hiker from going up the Precipice Trail. “It’s not something you can get away with,” he tells them—the extreme visibility of the cliff face means that anyone attempting the route would be hiking in plain sight. That, he says, “and we’ll boot your car before you get back down.”
After the peregrines fledge in August, he’ll head to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the park’s highest point, to start Acadia’s annual raptor migration count. “My dad is an entomology professor and my mom is a sixth-grade science teacher,” Guillebeau says. While he was in high school, “I’d take all the creepy crawlies in the house and bring them to my mom’s school,” he says, explaining his early (and familial) interest in environmental education.
For now Guillebeau seems content to stick with the falcons, even if he is doing it from a distance. “I like songbirds,” he says, “but man, it’s hard to get excited about something that’s essentially a flying hamburger.”