Peregrine Falcons started to be seen in Downtown Utica in the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that a territorial pair was first identified. At that time the pair seemed to be expressing an interest in the Hotel Utica as a potential nest site; however that building’s lack of sheltered ledges made it unacceptable to the birds. Unfortunately, similar problems exist with all of the other tall buildings in the otherwise attractive habitat in Downtown Utica.
In 2008 a pair of Peregrine Falcons surprised the experts by making their nest on a large covered ledge on M&T Bank’s Gold Dome building. The birds’ selection of such a low elevation site (only 4 stories high) was unprecedented in New York State. In fact it was fully 10 stories lower than the next lowest nest site in the State. Across the street from M&T Bank on the 4th floor of the Winston Building, a very few dedicated falcon watchers, including that building’s owner, Craig Podosek, kept watch on the nesting pair and eagerly awaited the appearance of falcon eggs. They waited and waited – even well past what is accepted as the normal egg-laying period for the species in Upstate New York. But then on June 4th, 2008, an egg was finally laid. Interestingly, by this comparatively late date some other falcons around the State were already at the point of fledging young. Regardless of the curious circumstances, this was an historic event; it was the first ever Peregrine Falcon egg to be produced in Utica and in Oneida County. Peregrine Falcons normally lay from 3 to 5 eggs, so when no other eggs materialized on the nest scrape, it was marked down as yet another strange quirk of this enigmatic pair. The falcon watchers despaired when the typical 32 days of incubation passed and the egg didn’t hatch. The falcons continued their incubation for several weeks longer, but there was no changing fate. Finally the nest along with the apparently infertile egg were abandoned. The pair, which by this point had been dubbed Maya and Tor (in honor of their host building, M&T Bank), remained in the Downtown area and continued to hold the territory.
In 2008, Spring Farm CARES, working together with the New York State DEC and M&T Bank, finalized plans to make adaptations to the nest ledge. It was hoped that these changes would increase the falcon’s chances at breeding success in the coming 2009 season. The plans were carried out in February of that year and a nest tray was installed on the ledge. As recommended, the bottom of the tray was lined with pea gravel and some of the ledge’s anti-roosting wire (intended to deter pigeons) was removed. The installation of the nest tray was accomplished by DEC Wildlife Biologist Steve Heerkens and a National Grid lift operator. The tray itself was constructed at Spring Farm CARES, and since the dimensions of the ledge couldn’t be obtained in advance, it had interchangeable pieces, so it could be custom fit during the installation. By March of 2009, Maya and Tor had accepted the new nest tray and were once again poised to nest. No one knew quite what to expect that time around. The falcon watchers in the Winston building again waited eagerly for eggs to be laid. They again had a long wait. On June 6th, Maya finally produced an egg. However, just like the previous season, no more eggs were forthcoming. Both parents conscientiously shared incubation duties for the prescribed period, but like a replay from previous year, the single egg never hatched. This was another sad failure for the Utica pair and for the growing number of people that became drawn in by their saga. The question remained – what was the problem with these birds? But it was a question that would never have a satisfactory answer.
Despite their inability to produce young, the pair stayed together and vigorously defended the territory from any other raptors that were foolish enough to enter their airspace. Several accipiter hawks were found dead, presumably killed by the pair. This is in no way unusual behavior for highly territorial raptors like Peregrine Falcons. On one occasion Maya was seen intently perusing a Merlin (a Merlin is a Pigeon-sized species of falcon). A little later on that same day, the Merlin was at a Wildlife Rehabilitator’s facility receiving care for its injuries. Yes, Maya had put that bird in the hospital!
In February of 2010, Tor impacted against the window of a store front near the Gold Dome nest site and was fatally injured. He flew away after the incident, but was never seen again. Maya remained on the territory and held it for 2 more years, but failed to ever accept another mate. She did have some suitors, but apparently none were up to her standard. Finally, in the spring of 2012, Maya abandoned the Downtown site and was not seen again. Following her disappearance a procession of other Peregrines –mostly juvenile birds, arrived on the scene and a few of them only briefly held the territory. By the summer of that same year, these juvenile birds were displaced by a new adult pair. Falcon watchers again became hopeful at the prospect of a new pair of Peregrines claiming the site. But the possibility of these birds using the prepared nest tray at the Gold Dome ledge site was deemed highly unlikely. It was just too low to even be considered by a “normal” pair of falcons.
The Utica Peregrine Falcon Committee (UPFC) was formed by the Kirkland Bird Club in the fall of 2012. The primary mission of this 3 person committee was to install a Peregrine Falcon nesting box on one of the tall buildings in the Downtown area. Two candidate sites were singled out and their potential as host sites were explored. In early 2013, a Peregrine Falcon nest box was constructed by committee members Gary Parrish and Bob Williams. At the same time permission to place a box on the Adirondack Bank building was sought and graciously granted. On April 4th 2013 the new nest box was installed on a ledge on the 15th floor of the Adirondack Bank building. The new falcon pair (at that point still unnamed) were not expected to accept the nest box right away since the 2013 breeding season was already underway. However, by that summer it was clear that the new resident pair had more than a passing interest in the site and their visits to the box became more frequent. By early March, 2014, nest scrapes began to appear in the gravel on the floor of the nest box. This was taken as a clear sign of breeding intentions. Frequent courtship displays and mating behavior seen in the vicinity of the box confirmed the falcon watchers’ hopes. On April 3rd, 2014 a network camera was installed inside the nest box so the breeding activity of the birds could be monitored in a manner that wasn’t intrusive. On April 10th, the first egg appeared on the nest scrape. For Utica and Oneida County, this would be the first egg laid by a Peregrine Falcon in 5 years. The pair were named Astrid and Ares by members of the UPFC and by a new group of very committed falcon watchers that work inside the Adirondack Bank Building. Names were chosen that begin with an “A” in honor of the Adirondack Bank – the Utica falcons’ new host site.