MANAYUNK, PA - A pair of the fastest animals on earth are hunting around St. John the Baptist Church in Manayunk. For the past seven years, a pair of Peregrine falcons have been living and hunting from the top of the iconic church bell tower.
The massive church tower, on the corner of Cresson and Rector St., is one of the most beautiful and recognizable pieces of architecture in Manayunk - but not many people know about the falcons living at the top of it.
PHL17’s Matt Alba climbed 208 feet into the top of the church tower to get a bird’s eye view of a Peregrine falcon nest, that the church built for these amazing birds to breed.
If you pay close attention to the western side of the St. John the Baptist bell tower, you just may spot a Peregrine falcon perched and looking for prey.
Art McMorris is the Peregrine falcon coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and explained, “They can easily exceed 200 miles an hour.”
Monsignor Kevin Lawrence says a few years ago when they were renovating their church and it’s 130-year-old bell tower, they were shocked to learn that a pair of Peregrine falcons were living, hunting, and nesting inside the top of the tower.
“Up close they are pretty fierce looking bird,” said Lawrence, who sometimes helps the falcon chicks if he finds them on the sidewalk at the base of the tower. “I’ve been trained, unwillingly, to capture them and put them on a high place like the rectory roof where they can take off and get some wind under them and get back to their nest.”
At the top of the tower, the church built a nesting box for the falcons.
While PHL17 was filming at the top of the tower, we actually caught a rare glimpse of one of the falcon chicks hiding under his mom until it’s time to take his first flight. And when that happens, we’re told falcon lovers fly into Manayunk, with their eyes glued to the sky.
McMorris said, “The falcons are so visible here! The steeple is right there, you have the Couch Tomato, you can sit with a pizza and beer and watch them. At fledging time, when the young are learning to fly, that’s really the Super Bowl of falcon watching right here because they are right up above you!”
McMorris says groups of local falcon lovers meet at the Couch Tomato to watch the birds through binoculars and take pictures.
Judy Stepenaskie photographs the St. John’s falcons regularly and shared some incredible photos with us.
In nature, Peregrine falcons usually nest on cliffs - but these urban birds choose tall man-made structures like the top of city hall, bridges, or a church tower in order to have a better vantage point to hunt.
“There were no Peregrines nesting in Pennsylvania until 1986, none at all. This last year we had 54 pairs nesting in Pennsylvania,” said McMorris. McMorris and about 250 falcon-loving volunteers monitor the birds and make sure they’re successfully breeding. Once a year, McMorris checks in on the St. John’s falcons to tag them.
“The reason we have Peregrines here now is through a massive effort of capture and release throughout the states and Canada,” explained McMorris. With about 25% of the Peregrine falcon population living in Philadelphia, keep your eyes out, you never know when you might catch a glimpse, albeit a fast one, of the world’s quickest killer!