2 peregrine falcons relocate to safer S.C. home

After years of worrying that someone might accidentally fall off Jumping-Off Rock, Mark Hall went over the edge on purpose.

Hall, the manager of the 43,500 acres maintained by the state in the Jocassee Gorges, and two climbing experts didn't jump off as much as they rappelled over one of the most scenic cliffs in South Carolina.

And while it was a blast to explore uncharted territory, they did it with a serious purpose - ensuring the well-being of one of only two known nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the state.

The birds showed up for the first time in 2008 and came back in 2009. But they moved from their established nest early this year, apparently spooked by human activity nearby.

"We're trying to find out where they moved," Hall said Thursday.

What they found should encourage bird-lovers and those who appreciate the views around Jumping-Off Rock.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources closed the portion of Horse Pasture Road nearest the cliffs in 2008 after Hall first spotted the rare birds, which came off the endangered species list in 1999 but still number fewer than 4,000 breeding pairs in North America.

The closing frustrated locals who ride four-wheelers and trucks up the rugged gravel road to enjoy the view from Jumping-Off Rock of Lake Jocassee and the North Carolina mountains. The spot is so picturesque, it's where Gov. David Beasley announced the historic preservation of the Jocassee Gorges in 1997.

Hall isn't sure of the derivation of the rock face's name; to his knowledge, nobody has jumped off it. Recreational rock climbing isn't allowed on the face.

It's hard to imagine anyone has jumped off the rock face and lived to tell about it. The sheer drop ranges from about 25 feet (to a skinny ledge) to nearly 300 feet.

As more visitors discovered the site in recent years, Hall grew concerned that someone would fall over the precipice. While the road was closed in 2008, the state built a more structured (and safer) overlook about 200 yards away.

The road was reopened in 2009, but the old parking area near Jumping-Off Rock was closed and the most dangerous portion of the cliffs was declared off limits to visitors.

Hall thinks most visitors adhered to the new rules. But shortly after the falcons returned in January 2009, they suddenly abandoned their first nest. Trash indicated people had been shooting skeet above the birds' nest, which was accessible on a ledge to the west of Jumping-Off Rock.

Hall was worried about the birds' safety until he spotted their spectacular aerial show a few weeks later. The crow-sized birds are among the fastest in the world, diving as fast as 200 mph to attack other birds in the sky.

Their acrobatics are seen throughout the mountain bluffs of the East Coast and even among the skyscrapers in New York City. But the only other nesting pair in South Carolina in recent years was on the back side of Table Rock Mountain, Hall said.

The Jumping-Off Rock pair, which probably started their lives nearby in North Carolina, produced young each of the past two springs. The young birds typically stay within 100 miles of their parents. So protecting the nesting site is important to ensure the birds maintain a foothold in South Carolina.

Hall asked climbing instructors Robert Dye and John Buford of Brevard College in North Carolina to help him find the new nest site this month. It's the ideal time, because birds leave in the summer before returning in January.

Dye, who years ago dangled from helicopters to help band young peregrine falcons in Canada, jumped at the chance. He was the first to rappel over the edge on a rope anchored to a large tree on Thursday.

For the first known "jump" off Jumping-Off Rock, Dye's descent was anticlimactic. He slid over quietly, concentrating on his path down a steep rock slope to a ledge about 25 feet down.

"So you think they were on a ledge below where I'm standing?" Dye asked when he reached the first ledge.

"Yep," Hall said.

"I'd buy that," Dye said. "That doesn't look like a place where a fox is going to run up and grab a chick."

Hall then followed Dye down the rope, with Buford going down last. They anchored other ropes to trees on the ledge, then edged out onto the last of the series of ledges. From there, they could see the underside of a ledge to the west that sticks out about 10 feet.

Whitewash (evidence of bird poop) streaked down from a smaller rock tucked under the overhang. Even with binoculars, it was impossible to see more sure-fire evidence such as bones left over from meals. But the whitewash was under what looked like an ideal nest site, and it was near a dead tree branch where Hall most often spotted the falcons this year.

"I bet that's their primary site," Hall said from his precarious perch. "I never could get a three-dimensional view of that site until I got right here."

Puffing hard after the climb back up, Hall looked satisfied. The birds had moved up to a nicer home in the same neighborhood.

"The other nest was much more accessible (to humans or predators such as foxes)," Hall said. The new nest is "harder to watch, but maybe it's a good thing they moved."