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March 16, 2009

Visitors may see peregrines from new Jocassee overlook

While the overlook known as Jumping-Off Rock is closed, a new vista has been created nearby with the same breathtaking view, with the added bonus of giving visitors the chance of seeing nesting peregrines displaying their incredible aerobatic maneuvers.

Also, Horsepasture Road in the Jocassee Gorges in northern Pickens County will be open in its entirety during the spring season of March 20 through May 10. Last year, a 5-mile section of the road was closed to protect the first year of peregrine nesting up there.

In February 2008, Jocassee Gorges Project Manager Mark Hall of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stumbled upon a significant find on Jocassee—the state’s second known pair of nesting peregrine falcons. Aerial acrobatics, unique perching behavior and protective calls were tell-tale signs that the birds were serious about the nesting site, and they had chosen near the key geographical feature in Jocassee: Jumping-Off-Rock.

Hall called in the DNR bird conservation coordinator, Laurel Barnhill, to size things up, and she confirmed that the raptors were indeed intent on increasing their numbers in the area. However, both biologists saw that a conflict was imminent because peregrine falcons do not take kindly to human disturbance around their nest sites, especially during a first nesting attempt. Thus, DNR closed the highly popular area for all uses in 2008, while the agency decided to strategize on what to do in the future. It was a difficult and potentially unpopular decision, according to Hall. The birds had chosen one of the most famous overlooks in the upstate and that was a problem, as visitors expected to use the site as they had for decades. But the decision was met with support from area users, and the falcons had their peace and quiet.

The peregrines did their part and fledged two healthy young in 2008. That was a critical factor since it cemented their bond with the area. The birds departed with their fledglings in early summer, presumably for the coast, and DNR biologists moved in with notepads, cameras, binoculars and ropes to assess the situation. The actual nest site was found in an incredibly cryptic location amongst the jagged rocks. Peregrines eat mostly other birds, and evidence of their forays of death was scattered below in the form of blue jay, titmice and yellow-shafted flicker (a woodpecker) feathers.

Biologists also identified a prominent, forested hill where an overlook might be developed about 250 yards from the peregrine’s favorite perch. The hill had the potential to allow visitors to experience the extraordinary view to which they were accustomed. DNR set its sights on a plan that would close off the traditional Jumping-Off Rock cliffs to give the falcons their breathing room, yet allow people to enjoy the scenery as well as the falcons at the same time. Allowing as much public recreation as possible without detriment to the natural resources is often a challenge, according to Hall.

"Playing landscape architect for wild animals has always been one of the most rewarding parts of my job," said Hall. He teamed up with Barnhill to explore a new site for people to experience the vastness of the area. They decided on the nearby hill and developed a rough plan. Hall returned with Jerry Ledbetter of Sunset Vegetation Management to finalize some construction details and move forward with the change. About 2 acres of trees were felled to provide the new view of the falcon’s site as well as the surroundings. The area was landscaped with a natural touch with a pathway leading to the new overview. Bill McNeely of LBM Industries in Sapphire, N.C., gave DNR a special price on the boulders used at the site. When it was completed on Jan. 1, all those involved exclaimed that it turned out better than they had expected.

DNR hopes the public will feel the same way about the new vista at Jumping-Off Rock. No doubt, many parents who visit with children will feel more at ease, since the new site does not have the life-threatening drop-off like the one at Jumping-Off Rock. Safety was always a concern there. DNR will make good on its promise to reopen the road to public use in spring 2009. The section of road near the cliffs is closed to foot traffic, stopping and/or parking of vehicles.

Shortly after construction was completed, the falcons returned and were spotted on Jan. 7. Outdoor enthusiasts will be able to watch the falcons as they patrol the treetops in search of prey, and they might be lucky enough to see some aerial dives or other mating behavior in March.

"We are always on that tight-rope, trying to balance the needs of the resource versus the desire of people to enjoy our wild lands," Hall said. "I think we’ve come up with a solution to keep that equilibrium in place this time."

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 Pickens and Oconee counties. 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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