As San Jose's famous falcon Clara incubates her four eggs with the help of her mate Esteban, bird enthusiasts near and far are gearing up for Fledge Watch 2009.
Falcons once hovered on the brink of extinction, but now one couple is the beloved and unofficial mascot of San Jose City Hall.
A group is preparing to help monitor Clara and Esteban's yet-to-be hatched babies as they make their first attempts at flight later this spring.
The fledging process begins approximately six weeks after the babies hatch, Stewart said. At this time, the young falcons test their still-growing wings and make their first attempts at going airborne.
"They fly well, but they're clumsy at landing," Glenn Stewart, coordinator of the predatory bird research program at the University of California at Santa Cruz said.
Stewart estimates the babies will begin hatching around April 19 or 20. Fledging begins roughly six weeks later, around late May or early June.
This will be the third year Clara's fan base has been observing the fledging process, according to Evet Loewen, San Jose's chief deputy city attorney, who also serves as the informal ringleader of local residents who support the falcons.
When baby peregrines make their first flights, they can end up in unfamiliar trees, atop roofs, or in one case last year, at a bus stop next to a gas station, Loewen said. In an urban environment, these tentative explorations can be risky for the young birds.
That's where Fledge Watch comes in.
An effort that started out as a small cluster of people standing on Sixth Street has morphed into a more organized operation, she said, dubbed Fledge Watch.
This year, volunteers will sign up for shifts from 6 a.m. to sundown, Loewen said. A large tent atop the Fourth Street parking garage will serve as headquarters, helping watchers stay in contact and make sure people are stationed at their proper locations.
For the duration of their three to four-hour shifts, volunteers will remain at their posts, communicating by walkie-talkie and constantly watching the nest box on top of City Hall for signs of flight.
If a baby does take wing, volunteers must follow its trajectory to make sure it lands in a safe place. The most difficult part of the assignment, Loewen said, is explaining your actions to curious passersby, all the while keeping your eyes glued to the top if City Hall.
"Everyone and their next-door neighbor comes up and says, 'what are you looking at?" she said.
Students from San Jose State University and UC Santa Cruz will take part in the Fledge Watch. Loewen said it's difficult to anticipate how many people will turn out, but she is aware of falcon-lovers traveling from Michigan, Reno and Texas to assist.
"It practically turns into a tailgate party," she said of the scene on top of the Fourth Street garage. Participants bring chairs, umbrellas and refreshments, but grills are not allowed.
If baby falcons do get stuck somewhere, Loewen said volunteers must keep them safe until Stewart or another falcon specialist can return the wayward bird to its nesting box on an 18th-story ledge. Last year, two of Clara's babies ended up spending the night in Loewen's City Hall office, and another waited away an afternoon in her workspace until help could arrive, she said.
Clara and Esteban are in the phase known as "hard incubation," taking turns sitting on the four eggs Clara produced earlier this month.
Anyone interested in participating in Fledge Watch can call the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at 831-459-2466 and leave a message with your contact information.