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March 20, 2008

Peregrines likely nesting in Jocassee Gorges; road partially closed to protect falcons

In what would be only the second documented nesting site in South Carolina in decades, peregrine falcons are apparently nesting in the Jocassee Gorges in northern Pickens County.
           
"This is a perfect example of why conserving places like Jocassee Gorges is so important," said Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Without the efforts of all the conservation partners who helped protect Jocassee Gorges, these peregrine falcons would not be here."
           
Since nesting peregrine falcons are extremely sensitive to disturbance, a 5-mile section of Horsepasture Road from Cane Creek Road will remain closed when the interior Jocassee Gorges roads open on Thursday, March 20. This means that the hallmark view of the Jocassee Gorges, Jumping Off Rock, will not be accessible until the peregrines have fledged their young, perhaps in June.
           
"It’s unfortunate that folks won’t be able to access Jumping Off Rock in April and May," said Mark Hall, DNR wildlife biologist, forester and Jocassee Gorges land manager. "But we think that conservation-minded people will be understanding of this, as this is a historic moment for wildlife protection in South Carolina.
           
"We have also opened up six new vistas on the Horsepasture Road before you get to Jumping Off Rock, all of them spectacular views, so this should help compensate for the loss of not being able to get to Jumping Off Rock this spring."

Hall first noticed the peregrine falcons in early March. He monitored them constantly during the next two weeks and also observed courtship behavior. A visit by Barnhill to Jocassee Gorges on March 13 confirmed that the peregrines were exhibiting typical nesting behavior, although a nest has not been confirmed.
           
"The area where the peregrines are nesting is being closed for the benefit of the birds," Barnhill said. "This is a situation similar to three barrier islands in Charleston County that are closed to boat landings and the public from March to October to protect nesting seabirds. Without these kinds of protections, these birds would not be nesting successfully."
           
A pair of peregrine falcons has nested on the backside of Table Rock Mountain in northern Pickens County since 1990.
           
Peregrine falcons are among the world’s fastest birds, clocked in dives at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Populations dropped to precipitously low levels because of pesticide contamination (from pesticides now banned throughout much of the western hemisphere). Concern about their long-term survival led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as endangered in 1971. Due to population recovery, it was removed from the list in 1999.
           
Peregrines typically lay a clutch of three to four eggs, and incubate them for 29-32 days. It takes 35 to 42 days for the young birds to fledge (leave the nest), so if peregrines are indeed nesting in Jocassee Gorges, biologists hope to see young birds in May. Peregrines raise one brood a year, and they feed almost exclusively on birds.

Signs will be posted at the closed section of Horsepasture Road. All access to the peregrine nesting area will be prohibited, whether in vehicles, on foot, by mountain bike or horseback. Conservation officers will be patrolling the area until the peregrine falcons have finished raising their young and left the area.

Waterfalls, green salamanders, black bear, uncommon plants such as Oconee bells and many long-range vistas are just a few of the natural wonders that may be found in the 33,000-acre Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges in northern Pickens and Oconee counties. The DNR and many conservation partners began acquisition of Jocassee Gorges in 1997. More information on the Jocassee Gorges may be obtained by calling the Clemson DNR office at (864) 654-1671, extension 22.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.


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