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Jun. 22, 2018
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Observers spot Peregrine Falcons at Tallulah Gorge State Park

By Jane Harrison
 
As ospreys begin their acrobatic mating ritual high above Lake Lanier this month, another bird of prey is showing off above rushing water northeast of here. A pair of Peregrine Falcons returned to Tallulah Gorge State Park for breeding season last month.
 
Assistant Park Manager Jessica James spotted the female from the South Rim Trail Feb. 8. “This is earlier than ever … I spotted her in about two minutes,” she said. “She’s remarkable, larger than last year. You can spot her with the naked eye.”
 
Her mate appeared about four days later. “The male will spend about a month impressing the female, even if they’ve been together many years,” said James, a passionate falcon-watcher. “He’ll show off his hunting skills with aerial acrobatics. It’s pretty amazing since these are the world’s fastest animal. In steep dives, they can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.”
 
Three years ago when rock climbers first reported Peregrines in the park, birders flocked to get a glimpse of the rare sight. It was the first time in nearly 75 years that a Peregrine nest in a natural setting had been confirmed in Georgia. The only other known nests were atop city buildings.
 
Late last month about 20 people gathered at Overlook 9 with binoculars and telescopes hoping to see the rare raptor. After about an hour scouring the skies and craggy gorge walls for a glimpse, the female falcon flew in nearly directly across the canyon from their observation point. Excited bird watchers trained park and personal telescopes on her, watching as she daintily preened cream-and-brown feathers against a shimmering backdrop of steep, wet rock.
 
Far below, the gorge’s spectacular Oceana and Caledonia Falls gushed as sun broke a near 10 day rain streak in the Georgia mountains. The bird seemed to welcome the chance to groom dry feathers on a small branch near her nesting site from last year.
 
Connie and Dennis Sullivan, from nearby Lakemont, were thrilled about their first “falcon fix” of the season. “I’m addicted to it,” said Connie, who scrolled through dozens of photos she’s taken of the birds, their eggs and offspring since 2015. “We live just three miles over the mountain from here. They’re in my backyard.”
 
She added that last year she “ran back and forth after work” for about 21 straight days to observe the birds through her husband’s telescope. Dennis, an astronomer, enjoys using his high tech sky-watching equipment to peer into the lives of Peregrines. The couple attaches a cell phone camera to a telescope to capture images of the parents tending their young, known as eyasses.
 
Prior to the viewing session at the overlook, James educated hopeful observers about the birds during a program at the park’s interpretive center. Peregrine Falcons practically disappeared from the eastern United States a few decades ago, primarily because of the effects of the pesticide DDT, but also because of egg collecting.  By the 1960s there were none nesting in the eastern United States.

Nest sites, called eyries, are normally on cliff ledges where the young are safe from predators. Yet in urban areas, peregrines have also adapted to nesting on buildings, bridges and other structures.
Cornell University helped release Peregrines in the 1980-90s at several North Georgia sites, including Tallulah Gorge and Yonah Mountain, but “they didn’t stay,” James said.
 
Before falcons chose Tallulah Gorge for nesting in 2015, Georgia’s last known eyrie in the wild was found in 1942 in a gorge – likely in the area now known as Cloudland Canyon State Park – in the state’s northwest corner.    
   
In the mating ritual in Tallulah Falls, the male swoops above and into the gorge to flaunt his hunting prowess. He then starts two or three nesting sites, leaving the final site selection to his mate. They fairly consistently return to the same general location, where the female lays 2-5 eggs. After incubating 29-32 days, the eyasses hatch and remain in the nest for 35-42 days.
 
The young birds “are very vocal, begging their parents for food. You can hear them across the gorge,” James said. Peregrines find plentiful prey – songbirds, doves and pigeons – in the gorge’s forested understory. Observers locate the nest by tell-tale white “wash,” or nest droppings streaming down the rock below it.
 
Peregrines only drop in for mating, nesting and raising young, then they’re off again, perhaps to Mexico, James said. Their ability to migrate 15,000 miles a year earned their moniker. Roughly translated from original Latin, peregrine means “prone to wander.”
 
James said that the park’s interpretative rangers “are all equally as obsessed as I am” with the falcons staying temporarily at the gorge. Visitors may bring binoculars and observe the raptors from the South Rim Trail, particularly from Overlooks 8, 9 and 10; however, rock climbing has been suspended to encourage breeding. Guests may want to stop at the Interpretive Center first to get directions and viewing tips. Programs and guided hikes will be posted at GaStateParks.org/TallulahGorge

Posted online 2/26/18
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