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Endangered falcons should easily adapt to new Tappan Zee Bridge, expert says

Chris Nadareski, a wildlife biologist and research scientist

Chris Nadareski, a wildlife biologist and research scientist from New Paltz, volunteers with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to tag young peregrine falcons living in the superstructure on the Tappan Zee Bridge. (May 21, 2013) Photo Credit: Chris Nadareski

The falcon guy thinks the new Tappan Zee Bridge will work just fine.

Wildlife biologist Chris Nadareski has dedicated his life to studying peregrine falcons, an endangered species nearly eradicated from New York by pesticides until conservation efforts in the late 1980s increased their population to around 77 pairs statewide today, including two birds living on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

"We have a large percentage of the population in New York state that are breeding on bridges, buildings and towers," he said.

Now, Nadareski is helping figure out how to move the birds to the new Tappan Zee Bridge in 2018, when the $3.9 billion replacement span is scheduled to open in five years and the old structure is demolished.

The New Paltz resident already has a few ideas.

"We don't envision problems with the new bridge," said Nadareski, who technically works for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection but volunteers to work on the bridge for the state.

Currently, the falcons living on the Tappan Zee reside in a special box that was fixed to the span over the Hudson River in 1988.

"It's about 75 feet up from the roadway, well-protected and isolated from the general public and most predators, so its actually a very good site for them to breed," he said.

Before the falcons' current home is torn down, Nadareski and other state officials intend to set up a nesting site in the new bridge that they hope the birds find suitable.

"We will be most likely installing a new box structure for the falcons to breed on once the new bridge goes up," he said.

The state environmental approvals for the replacement bridge dictate that the new box needs to be installed between September and the end of January as to not disrupt the falcons' spring mating season. Blasting and other disturbances must take the birds' safety into consideration, too.

In the meantime, Nadareski is monitoring the breeding habits of the winged couple and tagging their hatchlings, which were around three weeks old in late May.

"The tags that we put on the falcons are used for a wealth of biological information that we collect on how long they survive, where they might fly to and whether they might actually create a nest within the next two years," he said. "It's a useful bit of information for the state of New York."

His task isn't always easy.

Falcons are birds of prey. They can nosedive at 200 mph and snatch a smaller bird up in mid-flight for dinner. They also mate for life and breed in the same territory year after year. It's a combination that makes them extremely protective and potentially fearsome.

When Nadareski approaches their nests to tag the babies, he wears a hardhat to protect himself from the parents' talons. He advises bridge workers to do the same, too, when they get near the falcons' box.

Workers who have ventured too close to the nest have had to receive stitches after the birds attacked them with their sharp talons, state officials said.

"There's a lot of aggressive interactions between falcons and humans," said Nadareski. "Falcons can be terribly aggressive, especially to construction workers, painters, people doing inspections on the bridge."

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