The Lowell Sun
LOWELL - Driving or walking by Fox Hall, it's easy to be unaware of the generations of peregrine falcons that have made the top of the 18-story UMass Lowell building their home.
To the naked eye, the birds often blend into the brickwork. But for those with the right equipment, the world of the falcons is alive and breathtaking.
"It's the best reality show," said Imelda Joson.
"There's so much to learn from them every day," she added. "You become a 'falcoholic,' really."
Joson and her husband, Edwin Aguirre, didn't know much about falcons when they began following the endangered birds closely nine years ago. Aguirre, senior science & technology writer for the UMass Lowell Office of University Relations, was assigned a story about the birds in 2007 shortly after they were discovered by workers sent up the building to install banners.
Joson, a photographer, was contracted to provide accompanying pictures. Since then, the astronomers and naturalists have immersed themselves in the lives of UML's honorary "River Hawks" and the unique personalities that emerge each year. This year, longtime female resident falcon Merri and her new partner, Chris, have three chicks: Ashley, Sam and Tiny, now about eight weeks old.
Most of the year, Aguirre and Joson check on the falcons at least twice a day by monitoring university cameras centered on the nesting box and their own high-powered telescopes and binoculars.
During nesting season, Joson said she makes her car her office outside of Fox Hall. During those three weeks from April to May, she and Aguirre live on "falcon time," she said, getting up 30 minutes before sunrise to closely watch the birds and make sure they're safe the whole day through.
Much like human children can fall and hurt themselves as they learn to walk, so do falcon chicks as they learn to fly, Joson said. She and Aguirre are always watching, waiting, documenting and sharing what they see and capture.
When the chicks fall or are blown to the ground by a strong gust of wind, they can't move the birds themselves. They protect them from cars and predators until the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife arrives to return them safely to the nesting box.
Watching over the falcons and how they interact has been fascinating for Aguirre and Joson.
"It gives you a better appreciation of life and survival," Aguirre said.
They're delighted the falcons have captured the imaginations of students at UMass and beyond and that teachers and parents are using the falcon cams as a teaching tool. They believe it is very important to instill in today's youth an appreciation of the natural world and sciences.
Aguirre and Joson know a thing or two about both. They have their own backyard observatory at their home in Woburn, but they're anything but amateurs.
Originally from the Philippines, Aguirre and Joson moved to the U.S. in the mid-1980s shortly after publishing a book about Halley's Comet, titled "The Second Coming."
In 1995, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid, 6282 Edwelda - a combination of their names - in their honor.
The pair used to work for Sky & Telescope magazine, Aguirre as associate editor and Joson as photo editor.
They've chased total solar eclipses around the world, to numerous locations including Indonesia, Turkey, French Polynesia and Zambia. They cut one such trip to Mexico short in 1991 to fly to the Philippines to document Mount Pinatubo's first volcanic eruption in 500 years.
They've published literature about eclipses and are now working on their next book, which explores the upcoming total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. It will be the first such eclipse visible in the continental U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina, since 1979, they said.
The publisher asked for a meeting in New York, but Joson told them they couldn't go until August - they're too busy with the falcons, she said.
"I told them the whole story about the falcons, and she goes, 'This is a book in the making,'" Joson said.
For more information about the falcons and to view 24-7 streaming video of their nesting box atop Fox Hall, visit www.uml.edu/falcons.
Follow the falcons on Twitter: @UMLHawkWatch and Aguirre and Joson: @Edwelda.
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter: @alanamelanson and Tout: @alanamelanson.