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Falcons nest again at Sappi - with a few adjustments

The year since last June's flooding has brought new life and new hope to Carlton County. And nowhere is that as symbolically apparent as in a small nest near Sappi's Cloquet mill.

This spring, four peregrine falcon chicks were hatched in the nest who are expected to fledge (leave the nest) later this month.

The chicks' adult parents have returned to the same nesting site on the St. Louis River wall just below the mill for two to three years. The birds and their offspring have become part of an ongoing research project that covers 13 states as well as Manitoba and Ontario started by the Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota.

A couple of years ago, Sappi workers became dismayed that the birds' nesting site was located in a high-traffic area of the mill's steam plant operations, and the birds had become aggressive in dive bombing anyone in the vicinity of their tenuous nesting site.

One of the mill's steam plant chief operators, Jay Zack, approached Mary Krohn, operations coordinator for Project Athena, last year when the birds were being very defensive of their nest area and asked if Sappi would consider trying to attract them to a nesting spot a little further from where the mill's employees need to be moving around.

Krohn contacted the local office of the Department of Natural Resources, who in turn put her in touch with Jackie Fallon, field coordinator for a non-profit organization known as the Midwest Peregrine Society, an offshoot of the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. Fallon and others from their group travelled to Sappi's Cloquet mill, looked at the nest and gave suggestions for nesting box design and location, with an eye toward luring the birds to a more appropriate and less trafficked area.

Over the winter of 2011, mill employee Scott Johnson volunteered to participate in building and installing a nesting box high on the east side of the mill's tall recovery boiler to encourage the rare birds to nest away from river wall.

Though the falcon pair was spied sitting on the roost of the new nesting box last spring, in the end they opted to nest once again in their old home in the river wall where they had previous success in raising their young.

Last June changed all that....

As the flood-swollen waters of the St. Louis River rose at an alarming rate throughout the day on June 20, 2012, the river threatened to wipe out the family of five chicks since they were still too young to fledge. The mill staff had flood recovery operations to take care of themselves, so all they could do was wait and watch, hoping for the best for the nest of helpless chicks.

For obvious safety reasons, the only action plan was to ask Fallon to visit the nesting site when the water level receded, in hopes that some of the chicks may have fledged early and made it to safety before being swallowed up by the flood waters.

Fallon visited the Sappi mill a week later and was able to observe both adult falcons and four of the newly fledged chicks alive and well, much to the delight of the mill staff and field team.

The adult falcons returned to the St. Louis River near Sappi again this spring. They made their nest and safely hatched their young, but this time not in the endangered notch in the river wall. Instead, they nested in the box high atop Sappi's recovery boiler -- a symbol of the resilience of all those who faced the flood waters and survived.