Traffic Above, Water Below: Life on The Causeway Bridge.

blue-bonnet
A Nest Story: Blue Bonnet. 2018

I was out checking on Stewart the Bald Eagle recently when a neighborhood resident approached me curiously with some questions after he noticed my big scope. We got right into it and had been gushing about Eagles and how great it is to have them along the coast in New Jersey for several minutes when the topic turned to other raptors like the Peregrine Falcon. Naturally, I asked if he’d seen the new BOIS Peregrine Tower while driving over the Causeway Bridge.

No sooner than I’d asked it, his face grimaced, he averted his gaze, frumpled his brow, pursed his lips, and exhaled forcefully while shaking his head as if I’d just made some horribly inappropriate joke. “What gives?” I asked cautiously.

“Well, everyone is saying that the Tower was a huge mistake… they should have put in the woods or something. I heard no one was thinking when they put it so close to the bridge and all the traffic, and now the babies are dead because they got hit by cars. They should tear it down.”

 

It’s an understandable misunderstanding. So I quickly explained what the BOIS Tower is meant to do, and not do.

Since he suggested that “people are out here on the street saying'” I was inspired to explain it here on the Readings as well.

Jo Durt, the adult female of the Causeway Bridge nest, loves that bridge. The only way you are going to remove her from it is when you pry her cold, lifeless talons off the guard rail when she dies of old age decades from now.

Jo Durt sat patiently in wait for years, squatting silently on the Surf City Water Tower, until she finally reached sexual maturity. The moment she did, she headed directly over to the Causeway and most likely had a fight to the death with the previous female. She was victorious and now that bridge is her home. She is blood-bonded to it. She loves that bridge more than her own babies. If she is a successful female Peregrine, she’ll raise dozens of babies there over numerous years, and each year, she’ll kick them out at summer’s end and will kill them (literally) if they ever come back to mess with her precious bridge. That’s just the Peregrine way.

Peregrine Falcon were meant to nest on high cliffs, but have proved remarkably adaptable to urban environments. They are big city birds and bridges and skyscrapers suit their nesting needs quite well. In these settings, traffic is a problem, electrocution is a problem, and getting your wing sliced off by utility wires when chasing pigeons at over 200 MPH is a problem. While no-traffic is ideal, these urban structures have proved appropriate and desirable for them, and so now play an important part in the Peregrine recovery. And, as mentioned above, even if they didn’t, you’re not going to stop a PEFA from going where it wants to go. They are much, much faster than you.

The real trouble with bridges is the water underneath of them. And that water is mostly a problem when a baby Peregrine goes to take its very first leap of faith out of the nest and attempt its first flight. They don’t usually nail it. If the Causeway was taller, they might have more of a chance to catch the breeze and soar and get their bearings. If it had more appropriate nearby structures to grab hold of after a short flight, they might be able to fledge from there in a series of small flights.

But the Causeway is short, and cramped, and lacks easy perches, so the babies born there leap from the nest and plunge straight into the Bay where they drown in a panic quite quickly. It’s awful. They don’t even get a chance.

Add to that the facts that the Causeway is an active, ongoing construction site and Peregrine Falcon are a protected species capable of halting the construction completely by dropping a single egg in the wrong spot, and the BOIS Tower makes more sense.

The bigger concern when placing the BOIS Tower was putting it too far from the Bridge. Because it is really just a ruse. It is an attempt to provide a slightly more ideal nesting area where the babies have at least the chance of not-drowning, without making Jo Durt feel as if she is giving up her Causeway. Because she wouldn’t give it up. It is her home. Fortunately, the small patch of marsh on Bonnet Island where the Tower now stands was just sitting there adjacent to the bridge. It was the only spot which even had a chance of working.

And it worked. While it was touch-and-go for a bit there this spring, and not entirely clear that Jo Durt would give up the Bridge for the Tower, she eventually did and we finally had our first baby fly from the nest and live. I’d call it a miracle, but it wasn’t. It was a lot of thoughtful, caring, and hard work by the DOT, the CWFNJ, and NJNESP!

It was a real tragedy when Blue Bonnet died in a vehicle strike on the Causeway a few weeks after fledging this summer. But it was not entirely surprising. Across all nest types and the entire population, a fledging Peregrine has only a 50/50 chance of surviving the first year. They are the fastest animal on the planet and the best of them possess unbelievable skills and perform feats which push the limits of the physical world. Learning those skills is dangerous, and only half make it through their training.

Blue Bonnet was not our first fledging tragedy at the Causeway, and she most likely won’t be our last. But she was our first to successfully fledge, thanks in no small part to the BOIS tower lovingly built to give her that chance. She will always hold a special place in the history of the Causeway Bridge and in our hearts.

The purpose of the BOIS Tower is to protect the young from the water, and the nest from the construction.