OAK CREEK, Wis. -- Eclipse, a 3-year-old peregrine falcon, was in trouble.
The bird had found its way into a water treatment building at the WE Energies Oak Creek Power Plant. Perched in the building's rafters, the bird had shown no inclination to fly down and out open doors.
"They're basically trapped once they get inside," said Greg Septon of Muskego, one of the nation's leading falcon researchers.
No one knows when the female falcon flew into the building. At least four days had passed since it was first observed inside. But as to the "why," Septon said Eclipse was probably following its favorite meal -- a pigeon. Septon decided to use the same lure to get it out.
Called to the site on Oct. 30 to help extricate the peregrine, Septon looked but found no pigeons in the building. It seemed the falcons had been doing a very good job of keeping the local "rock dove" population in check. Eclipse raised three chicks in a nest on one of the stacks at the Oak Creek site this year with her mate, Scott.
So Septon turned to Jim Kitzman of Oak Creek, a falconer who also keeps racing pigeons. Kitzman lent Septon one of his high-end homing birds.
"He was leery, but in the end gave me one with the understanding I would do all I could to keep it alive," Septon said.
The pigeon had soft leather anklets, or jesses, attached.
Septon, who started the Wisconsin peregrine falcon recovery project in 1987 and has banded more than 700 peregrine chicks, carried the pigeon into the water treatment plant and donned the essentials of the falcon handler's wardrobe -- hard hat and safety glasses. He then walked up a landing between two filtration units and accessed a spot about 30 feet below Eclipse.
Septon held the pigeon up for viewing. What happened next had Septon, a "peregrine whisperer" if ever there were one, barking a series of expletives. Eclipse dived off its perch and in the blink of an eye hit the pigeon. Perhaps only a person who has been divebombed by hundreds of falcons could have responded so effectively. Septon used his free right hand to grab the falcon and get it to let go of the pigeon.
"There I stood with an angry peregrine in one hand and a nerve-wracked pigeon in the other," Septon said, recounting the episode.
He was able to place the pigeon in a cardboard box and wrap the falcon in a yellow rain coat he found nearby. He then hustled the coated falcon outside. Before he released it, he checked the band numbers -- a blue over red band on the bird's left leg said 67/H -- and felt its breast. The number confirmed the bird's identity. The pronounced keel on its breast indicated the bird had lost substantial weight. Then he let Eclipse go.
"She was feisty and flew away strongly," Septon said.
The bird's chances of surviving the incident are very good, Septon said. Although it suffered weight loss and was dehydrated, Eclipse will benefit from the attentions of its mate, Scott. Peregrines are in the midst of a fall courtship ritual, during which the males bring food to the females. Scott had been observed flying around the power plant throughout the incident.
The rescue story had a happy ending, too, for the bird drafted into service. The pigeon, other than a little blood on its right wing, "survived the harrowing experience pretty much unscathed," Septon said.
It was returned to a surprised Kitzman after less than an hour of work. With about 30 nesting pairs in Wisconsin, peregrine falcons are doing better but are still listed as a state endangered species.
The continued peregrine recovery in Wisconsin doesn't hinge on the survival of a single bird. But the tale of Eclipse, a tethered pigeon and the committed researcher highlights what most believe is a brighter future for peregrines.