High among the cliffs overlooking Harpers Ferry National Historic Park is a Mennen Toilet Powder sign. It was painted in whitewash 110 years ago. The sheer rock face has been a landmark for rock climbers for many years. Now it is a landmark for bird-watching tourists. The peregrine falcons are nesting there again.
For the first time since 1953, peregrine falcons nested on these cliffs above the Potomac in 2015. They failed to produce young that year, but they have returned in 2016. Dale Nisbet, director of wildlife management at the park, has high hopes.
Enthusiasm over peregrine sightings at the park arose with the sighting of a female bird on the cliffs during nest selection season in 2008 and 2009. Radio transmission data identified the bird as having originated in the New River Gorge. That bird disappointed expectations by failing to produce a nest, but a subsequent 6-year period of anticipation has finally established peregrines at Harpers Ferry.
Dale has witnessed peregrines diving for prey at 200 miles per hour from the Mennen Cliffs. He advises visitors to keep watch for the birds in early morning or late evening. They prey on the pigeons that frequent the wooden railroad bridge over the Potomac. Songbirds also fall victim to their hunting skills.
The peregrines at Harpers Ferry are a tourist resource shared by the public and the park. They were discovered nesting by a Potomac Audubon Society member. Dale offers advice on seeing the birds. Walk out on the wooden hiking bridge adjacent to the railroad bridge.
“Listen for a loud squawking sound,” he advises. Hearing them is the most practical means of contact under the low-light conditions of morning and evening.
While the peregrines nest, recreational climbing on the Mennen Cliffs is restricted. Hiking to the vistas of Maryland Heights is still permitted.
The wooden railroad bridge is about 200 yards from the main parking lot for Harpers Ferry tourists. Park at the restored train station facing the row of commercial shops.Follow the cobblestone street to the John Brown’s raid historic site and turn left. Pass a view of the juncture of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and continue across the bridge. Further walking opportunities await on the far side, where the C&O Canal leads along the riverside.