A couple of Saturday’s ago Bob Olthoff and I made a quick trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway. We were going up to Black Balsam to look for yellow-rumped warblers. Yellow-rumps are regular visitors to Western North Carolina during the winter but generally pack their bags and head back to New England and/or Canada for nesting season. Occasionally nesting yellow-rumps can be found at higher elevations in the mountains of North Carolina.
A pair of endangered peregrine falcons has established a new nesting spot on Whiteside Mountain near Highlands, forcing a relocation of the climbing route on the face of the mountain.
Whiteside Mountain has been home to a nesting pair of falcons for years, but this year they have moved their nest from the west to the east side of the cliff.
“This year, they’re mixing it up a bit,” said Chris Kelly, Wildlife Biologist with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and coordinator of the peregrine falcon monitoring program. “It’s hard to say why they moved to the other side of the cliff, but we do know that a new female is on territory this year.”
The move could also be a response to disturbance in 2009. The closure was violated last year, and the nesting attempt failed for the first time in 11 years.
“Peregrine falcons do not respond well to disturbance,” says Kelly. When falcons are tending eggs or nestlings, the presence of people near the nest may cause the adult birds to spend time away from the nest, leaving eggs or nestlings exposed to the elements and delaying food deliveries.
A young bird flushed off the nest will fall to its death. By adhering to the closure, climbers can help ensure that the birds will be able to finish nesting in a timely fashion. If they are disturbed, they will attempt to re-nest, which will delay opening of this cliff significantly, as was the case in 2009.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest that the falcons nest undisturbed,” said Kelly.
The east side of the cliff will be closed to climbers through August 15 — specifically the cliff face east of the “Mainline” climbing route. When facing the cliff, east is to the right. The west side of the cliff will be open this year for a change.
The Forest Service has updated the proper climbing routes in the trailhead kiosk and is posting signs on the trail.
Whiteside Mountain Trail remains open for hiking. The cliff is so enormous that the birds do not respond to hikers up top. Visitors may catch a glimpse of the falcons from the trail as the falcons wheel around chasing vultures and hawks and swooping after prey.