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December 19, 2011
Peregrine falcon pair at Jocassee Gorges fledges two birds for fourth year in a row
In 2008, a pair of peregrine falcons chose Jumping-Off Rock within the Jocassee Gorges as their new nest site. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources was ecstatic about the addition, which felt like a jewel in the crown of the upstate. Amazingly, the peregrines have fledged two juveniles for four years in a row now.
"The presence and success of the peregrine falcons at Jumping-Off Rock is a testament to the biological integrity and importance of wild areas in the Upstate," said Mark Hall, Jocassee Gorges project manager for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Jocassee Gorges was acquired in 1998 to ensure that wild places would exist for future generations. Jocassee was a key property in the chain of conservation lands in the Upstate and it was the base for outdoor recreation. Naturalists had long recognized Jocassee for its biological diversity in the mountains. When the falcons appeared, it was confirmation of that.
When the falcons appeared in early 2008, DNR closed the entire nesting area to public use to make sure the second known pair of nesting peregrines in the state had plenty of breathing room. Biologists wanted to be extra safe, rather than sorry. Human disturbances can impact animals, especially a new pair of breeding raptors.
"Obviously, some peregrine falcons reside in cities, on skyscrapers and such," Hall said, "but we could not afford to take any chances with this situation." In subsequent years, DNR re-instated public access through the area and the peregrines not only held their ground, but contributed to the population for the next three years in a row. A new overlook was created nearby to allow visitors virtually the same incredible view of Lake Jocassee and the mountains. It was strategically placed about 300 yards from the nest site to offer visitors a glimpse of the falcons, too.
Typically, the falcons appear about mid-winter and start their mating ritual. Courting and nesting activities have taken place from February to May each year. Fledglings are usually first observed between late May and June. DNR was extremely fortunate to enroll the assistance of Denise Crawford of Easley to monitor the falcons over the past three years. Crawford is an amateur ornithologist and is dedicated to the falcons of Jocassee. Every summer she spent countless hours of sitting on the rocks waiting for activity. She recorded detailed observations of mating behavior, nesting success and movement of the raptors. Long, boring hours of waiting were rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime, spectacular aerial acrobatic shows and as well as prey hand-offs from male-to-female or adult-to-juvenile. Her detailed observations remain part of the permanent DNR record for biological activity on the property. During a crucial time of short budgets and minimal staff, she contributed hundreds of hours of work that would have otherwise gone undone.
Hall rappelled down the cliffs in 2009 with assistance from Brevard College professors who are experts in wilderness rescue and survival. They determined the precise nest site "or eyrie," which was nearly impossible to discern without scrambling down the sheer rock. The nest site was a mere flat spot under a rock overhang, sporting only a few grains of sand and pebbles. "They are pretty low-maintenance, especially when you compare their home to the multi-million dollar mansions that have appeared in the surrounding areas in the past decade or so," Hall said.
The peregrines of Jocassee will soon be part of the public television show "Expeditions with Patrick McMillan." In mid-summer 2011, Hall spent time at the cliffs with Clemson University videographers. The video crew was lucky to get high-definition shots of steep, diving swoops, "feinting" actions between juvenile and adult and several hand-offs of either birds or small mammalian prey. The crew was excited about its accomplishments and feel they might have some of the best peregrine falcon footage on record.