Decommissioning a power plant is a complicated task with local and even regional impacts. But for
Great River Energy (GRE), taking down a facility in central Minnesota carried global implications.
For more than a decade, a worldwide audience has followed via live webcam the annual comings and goings of several adult peregrine falcon pairs who have made their homes in a nesting box atop the Elk River Energy Recovery Station.
“The falcons were a source of pride at the plant and for Great River Energy,” says Tim Steinbeck, resource recovery director at the Maple Grove, Minnesota-based G&T. “They were our mascots, of sorts. When we began streaming live video of the nest, we had no idea it would become a sensation. We had loyal viewers all over the world.”
So when Great River Energy decided in November 2018 to close the 30-MW waste-to-energy power plant the following spring, Brenda Geisler immediately started work on relocating the internet-famous nesting site.
“A lot of facilities are closing, and many have peregrine nests,” says Geisler, a 19-year Great River Energy employee and resident raptor expert. “I’m hopeful moving this nest is a way to keep this a legacy for this plant and others.”
Highly photogenic with black cap, blue-gray coat, and stylish striped vest and pants, peregrines are beloved by falconers and the public alike. They were nearly wiped out in North America by the use of certain pesticides but have made a remarkable comeback since the 1972 ban on the chemical DDT, and the birds are now abundant.
They’re renowned as the world’s fastest birds, diving at speeds up to 200 mph when on the hunt. Unlike many of their raptor cousins, peregrines are not nest builders, preferring to settle in shallow depressions on high cliffs or even on the ledges of tall buildings in cities.
Breezy and Brooklyn
To find the right accommodations in time for the birds’ early 2020 return migration, Geisler assembled a 24-member team, with representatives from nearly every department at Great River Energy as well as outside wildlife specialists. After several meetings, the team decided that mounting the nesting box atop a 90-foot power pole stabilized by guywires was the best option.
“Peregrine falcons prefer to nest hundreds of feet above the ground and near a reliable food source,” says John Howe, executive director of the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah, Iowa, and one of the wildlife specialists on the team. “Other than the turbine building, the highest facility structures at the site were only a couple stories high with employee traffic coming and going almost daily.
“Then Brenda shared an idea she had of using a large utility pole. We thought that just might work, since it was close by and a familiar area in the vicinity of their original nest box.”
Geisler designed a platform that included the same nesting box that was mounted on the power plant. The team added lightning protection to the pole and wrapped a 3-foot-wide sheet of metal around its base to guard against racoon invasions.
On Jan. 30, three linemen raised the pole—topped by the nest box—on a slope above a Great River Energy pollinator garden of native flowers, grasses, and foliage. Down the hill is U.S. Route 10 and the Mississippi River, which the falcons use as a highway to migrate south for the winter and back in spring.
But would a peregrine pair return to a pole-top nest box? And if so, would they feel at home enough to breed?
On March 3, the team got their answer when Breezy and Brooklyn, a familiar falcon couple, appeared along the river. The sharp-eyed raptors spied the nesting box high on the pole next to the now nearly demolished power plant.
Satisfied with the new digs, the pair settled in, and soon four small brown eggs appeared on its pebble floor.
“I was wondering if they were going to accept the new nesting box and location, if it was going to be good enough,” Geisler says. “I felt a lot of relief when I saw them lay their first eggs.
Great River Energy’s team had achieved a rare accomplishment in falcon conservation.
“We have successfully relocated peregrine falcon nest boxes before, but not using a free-standing pole,” says Amy Ries, who manages the peregrine falcon monitoring program for the Raptor Resource Project. “Great River Energy’s project was the first pole-mounted nest box relocation we are aware of, and we were very excited when Breezy and Brooklyn adopted it—and even more excited when they raised four healthy young this spring.”
A passion for peregrines
Great River Energy’s Elk River peregrine program was started in 2006 when Geisler, an administrative assistant at the plant, saw that the power plant was becoming overpopulated by pigeons—and their droppings. She remembered an old movie about World War II and how peregrines were used to intercept messenger pigeons.
Soon after, she connected with a teen who was looking for a project to earn his Eagle Scout badge. He built the first peregrine nesting box, which was mounted 110 feet up on the power plant’s roof. A pair moved in the following spring and raised three young that year. Another 39 have been raised at the site since.
Early on, Geisler teamed with the Raptor Resource Project to develop a tagging program in which, at 18 to 22 days old, the falcons get two bands—one to identify them for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and another to track them through the Midwest Peregrine Society database.
Area schoolchildren are invited to attend the banding ceremony below the nesting box and get a once-in-a lifetime close-up look at the fuzzy white fledglings. The kids can even name the baby birds.
“We’re trying to share with students the nature that surrounds us,” says Geisler, who visits local schools each year to share the story of the nesting peregrines with students of every grade. “It’s very, very exhilarating to see the students get involved.”
Personally, Geisler says peregrines have become a passion for her. She often spends weekends at the plant site to ensure their safety and has worked with other organizations on falcon research.
“I plan my vacations around them fledging.”
A significant milestone
By September, the four baby peregrines in the relocated nesting box had matured and left to begin their adulthood. Breezy and Brooklyn hung back until late fall, soaking in the new view.
Sometime in 2021, the live cam will resume its coverage.
“The last time we ran the livestream from the nest box in 2019, we had over 8,000 viewers, and they truly were from all over the world,” says Daniel Becchetti, communications leader at Great River Energy.
As more power plants with nest sites face shutdowns, the success of Great River Energy is an important milestone, the raptor specialists say.
“This project is significant because it shows that peregrine falcons will occupy and nest in artificial nest box towers in the absence of natural cliffs or tall buildings,” Howe says. “The GRE Elk River facility has been a productive falcon nest site, and with the care and ingenuity of Brenda and the GRE team, it will be for years to come.”