A small crowd gathered early Friday morning to watch a biologist rappel down the side of San Jose City Hall to put identification bands on four baby Peregrine falcons and report the hatchlings' gender to the birds' expectant fans.
Today's banding event is a three-year tradition at City Hall, where a falcon named Clara took up residence several years ago.
Glenn Stewart, coordinator of the predatory bird research program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was the first person to see the babies up close, not counting the thousands of people who watch them on the Web camera affixed near the nesting box on a ledge roughly 17 stories above the ground.
Stewart remembered to clean the camera lens while he was up on the nesting box perch as Clara, later joined by Esteban, circled the nest box, diving, shrieking and cawing in alarm.
This year, Clara and her latest mate Esteban Colbert hatched three girls and one boy, according to Stewart.
After the 30-minute banding endeavor, he reported all went smoothly. The babies were cooperative, he said, as he applied one identification band to each leg.
The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife requires one band to monitor the formerly endangered birds. The other band contains an identification number large enough that Santa Cruz researchers can view with binoculars.
A big pile of feathers nearby indicated parents Esteban Colbert and Clara were feeding their brood well.
Stewart reported seeing pigeon feathers, as well as other types.
"I'm sorry to say it looked like one cockatiel might have met his demise," he said of the feather pile.
Clad in a blue helmet affixed with a tiny camera, Stewart took an elevator to the roof of City Hall around 7:30 a.m. and threw a red rope over the side of the 18-story building. He used it to walk himself down the sidewall to the ledge containing Clara's nesting box.
The task is risky, not just because of the climb, but because extremely protective parents perceive Stewart's presence as a threat to their young. Though clearly agitated, neither bird attacked Stewart.
"She is hardwired to do her job in nature, which is catch birds in the air and protect her nest," he said of the anxious mother.
Banding should be done with the birds are 25 days old, according to Stewart. The babies have reached their adult size, but are still growing their flight feathers.
"The guys are always sorry to hear this, but the females are much larger and stronger than the males," he said.
Stewart expects the birds to fledge, or attempt flight, in about two weeks.
Now that the babies' genders are known, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed's office announced the finalists in the contest to name the babies. More than 240 San Jose school children submitted entries.
The 2,100 members of the falcons' online fan group will now vote on the names announced today. The potential winners draw from a variety of languages, and include Veer, which is Hindi for "brave" and the Spanish word for hunter, "Cazador."
Winning names will be announced May 22.
Falcon-watchers gathered on the top floor of the Fourth Street Garage this morning to watch the proceedings via binoculars, and on the webcam via a laptop.
San Jose resident Prabha Venu said she has watched for two years, enjoying a rare chance to witness the birds' instinctive behaviors at close range.
"This is something you would not get to see in the wild," she said of the access viewers have.
Craig Ow, also of San Jose, said he started watching on the falcon webcam, and decided to come down with his binoculars to view the event in person.
"I wanted to see them defend their territory," he said.