The high cliffs of Whiteside Mountain make for the ideal home to a variety of raptors, the peregrine falcon being one of the more popular. However, more commonly seen by visitors and often mistaken for falcons are turkey vultures and black vultures.
Pictured below is a raptor’s perspective of Whiteside Mountain
Peregrine falcons are rarer than vultures, with only about 13 nesting pairs in North Carolina, said Jason Love, Associate Director, Highlands Biological Station.
“Turkey vultures are more common than black vultures in our area, but overall, both are fairly common,” said Love. “These are the most common birds of prey that you see flying overhead, they are often mistaken for hawks, falcons, or eagles. A good place to see both peregrine falcons and vultures is Whiteside Mountain, though at this time of year the peregrines have likely left the area, they’ll show up again in early winter to start nesting and will stay through at least mid to late summer.”
Falcons are smaller than vultures and have grey backs and white chests with striped legs and bellies. Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures and have black heads with short tails and white coloration on their wingtips. Turkey vultures have red heads and longer tails with white coloration along the edges of their wings.
Christine Kelly, Wildlife Diversity Biologist, NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) said a falcon’s hunting style is to dive on birds in flight and is well suited for the high cliffs of Whiteside Mountain. She added that blue jays, flickers (a type of woodpecker), and anything that is a slow, flashy flyer makes an appealing meal to a falcon.
“Having a high, birds eye view of the surroundings helps them spot threats and prey from afar,” said Kelly. “I’ve watched some peregrines use a ‘sit and wait’ approach to ambush passing birds. Others will alight from the cliff and circle in thermals to spot prey, then zip off in pursuit. Also, a nest ledge that is inaccessible to terrestrial predators is another reason to select a high spot on a cliff. Keep in mind that they do not construct a nest; they lay eggs on the rock.”
Vultures are carrion birds, preferring to feed on dead carcasses, said Paige Engelbrektsson, Nature Center Education Specialist, Highlands Biological Foundation. Black vultures have been known to occasionally kill live prey, but prefer a meal that’s not going to put up a fight and is ready to eat. Turkey vultures are primarily solo hunters, while black vultures are known to hunt in small groups.
Turkey vultures are some of the only birds with a keen sense of smell and can smell a carcass from miles away. Engelbrektsson said black vultures are known to take advantage of that.
“Turkey vultures are some of the only birds with a keen sense of smell,” she said. “If you know how smelly carrion can be, you’ll understand why; it’s an easy way to find their meals, especially if it’s hidden under a forest canopy. Black vultures are known to follow them to find food, and then use their larger numbers to chase them off.”
Vultures, like many birds of prey, use thermals to aid in their flight, and for this reason are often spotted flying around cliffs, riding thermals generated by rising heat from the valleys below. However, interactions between vultures and falcons are minimal.
“Because vultures feed on carrion and peregrine falcons feed on birds that they take from the sky, they really don’t interact much,” said Love. “However, peregrines are fierce protectors of their cliffside nests and birds that fly too close, including vultures, are quickly chased away.”
Engelbrektsson said vultures sometimes get a bad reputation, but they are a benefit to the environment.
“While we may think of vultures as nasty or disgusting, they play an important role ‘cleaning up’ the forests,” she said. “Think of them as the janitors of our ecosystems, taking care of the carrion.”
Falcon nesting season Jan. 15 – Aug. 15
Rock climbing and the use of drones are prohibited on Whiteside Mountain during the falcon nesting season that runs from Jan. 15 to Aug. 15. This closure covers select rock faces on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in Western North Carolina.
The closure was lifted early this year on June 29 based on monitoring done by the NCWRC that indicated some successful fledging, but in several cases resulting in nest failure, said Sheryl Bryan, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist, US Forest Service. Nests can fail for several reasons, including human and other wildlife disturbance and natural events such as weather.
The NCWRC and U.S. Forest Service monitor peregrine falcon nesting sites to assess nesting and fledging success. The NCWRC is the lead agency in these efforts and determines when it is safe to re-open the rock faces to recreational use, said Bryan.
Kelly said the closure is in place because any disturbance to a pair of nesting falcons can cause them to abandon the nest. The closure window runs through Aug. 15 to cover any late-nesting. This sometimes happens if a pair has early cycle nest failure and re-nests.
“We (NCWRC) monitor nesting activity and report to the USFS the estimated safe dates to lift closures each year,” said Kelly. “This year all sites were able to be opened in late June. Some years they may keep one site closed if a pair is still nesting, but lift others. Occasionally, the closure does run all the way until August 15 to accommodate the late nesters.”
2020 was not a good nesting season and falcon nest success was low. Kelly said the cold, wet spring likely contributed to the low success rates and there were impacts to other species as well. Typically, falcons and vultures have 1-2 nestlings, but sometimes can have up to four.
Despite the nesting failures, the falcons at Whiteside (1 pair per cliff) were successful and reared two nestlings. Also, a pair of falcons on Laurel Knob raised one nestling.
Kelly said the rationale behind the ban on rock climbing and the use of drones is because peregrine falcons, and all raptors, have two main jobs during nesting: stick tight to the nest and keep the food coming.
Egg shells are porous and when exposed, eggs are vulnerable to chilling, overheating, or desiccation.
During incubation, peregrines do not leave the eggs unattended for more than 10 minutes, typically no more than 5. If a female is disturbed by anything and is off the eggs for an extended period of time, the eggs may be lost to damage.
Once hatched, the tiny nestlings require constant brooding by the female. As they grow, they require frequent feeding. If the adults are disturbed and not either brooding the young or hunting and feeding the young, the nestlings will be exposed to the elements or predators and may not put on weight at an adequate pace to survive, said Kelly.
“That’s basically how disturbance plays out and results in nesting problems or nest failure,” said Kelly. “Peregrines react to anything from drones to helicopters as a disturbance and threat. They have been observed diving on helicopters that got too close to nests. What that means is their eggs or young are unattended and at risk.”
She added that any disturbance during the late winter courtship phase can and does lead to falcons abandoning a nest site, which has been happening at Devil’s Courthouse. So even before eggs and nestlings, falcons need quiet space to do their thing and get settled.
Bryan said the USFS and NCWRC work with climbing groups to help protect falcons during nesting season.
“We (the USFS and NCWRC) have a fantastic relationship with the local climbing community,” said Bryan. “Several organizations, including the Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition help sign, monitor, and protect wildlife resources around closed rock faces, and serve as positive liaisons to the climbing community,”.
Kelly said working with organized groups like the AFCCC makes it easier to spread the message about protecting falcons.
“I just ask that people visiting a cliff site be mindful to read and adhere to notices at each site out of respect for these magnificent birds,” said Kelly. “It’s not a lot to ask, but it makes a difference for peregrines. The climbing community has been easy to loop in and they have been respectful and supportive, even helping us with some survey work. Getting this message and info to other recreationists that are not part of a cohesive recreation group is not as straight forward.”
It’s unclear where falcons go after nesting season, said Kelly.
“We actually don’t know a lot about this,” she said. “We’d need to deploy GPS transmitters on many, many individuals to get enough data to ensure the movements documented aren’t just that of outliers. With so many other species needing conservation effort and dollars, we haven’t pursued this. However, keep in mind that their Latin species name, peregrinus (Falco peregrinus) means ‘wanderer’. They can and will wander widely, especially in their first year. We do see adults at some of these cliffs in late fall and winter, suggesting that if a cliff and territory is super high quality, it’s worth defending year-round.”
For more information about falcon nesting season, click HERE.
All aerial footage shot after falcon nesting season.
Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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