I’ll never forget the time I looked a wild peregrine falcon in the eye. The encounter lasted at least five long minutes and is right up there with my best wildlife sightings ever. The year was 2000.
The huge majestic bird appeared on the ledge of my sixth floor window at CNN Center, giving me a rare chance to stare at its intricately speckled white breast and piercing dark eyes that looked right through me. I often wonder why that regal bird chose me. Who else working in downtown Atlanta ever had a similar encounter?
Carl Crowley wonders the same thing. Did the wild creatures choose him, or was he just in the right place at the right time? Since 2010, the business attorney at whose office is on the 28th floor of Buckhead’s Tower Place, has lovingly chronicled the comings and goings of peregrine falcons that nested on top of a nearby skyscraper, in perfect view from his window.
In fact, the open-air pointed triangle that caps the Buckhead Grand condos is clearly reminiscent of a mountain peak, the birds’ natural habitat.
“All Southern boys know the red-tailed hawk,” the Buckhead native said. That’s why he knew that what he saw racing by was smaller. Crowley explained the meticulous process and detective skills used to prove his theory. He Googled “peregrine falcons Atlanta,” his best guess for what he may have seen. Every time a bird showed up, he noted “PF” on that day’s calendar. After a few sightings, he saw that the bird’s markings exactly matched the photos online. He affectionately nicknamed the bird Perry Sentell after his favorite law professor at the University of Georgia.
He also found GABO, the highly active website hosted by UGA that allows birders around the state to easily report their sightings. About 30 e-mails a day come through. That’s how we first learned about Crowley’s sightings in Buckhead. Crowley also learned that two tall buildings in Atlanta were home to peregrines — Sun Trust Plaza downtown and the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown.
Then in March 2011, the birds gave Crowley quite a gift. Right before his eyes, two falcons were mating on top of the Buckhead Grand. Crowley reached out to the GABO community with the juicy news using the subject line “Two for certain! Mating observed!”
These excerpts from his GABO post described the intimate encounter: “I’m no birder, but it sure looked to me like animal copulation. One bird was perched on the back of the other; both were flopping around using odd postures with wings held up in the air at odd angles. By the time I finally got binoculars to my eyes and focused, the bird on top (the male?) was still attached to the one beneath him (the female?). Gosh, I wish I had a camera; I felt like Marlin Perkins!” (host of the popular TV show "Wild Kingdom," who later used his influence to advocate for endangered species).
GABO member Krista Gridley in Athens wrote back, “You say you're no birder, but I'd say you've been ‘bitten’ or maybe ‘smitten?’ And you have binoculars — a sure give-away!” She suggested he contact Jim Ozier at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who bands peregrine chicks and tracks them in Georgia. Ozier actually visited Crowley’s office, confirmed the ideal conditions and encouraged him to be on the lookout for a nest.
As Crowley wondered how a nest could be found, the answer showed up right outside his window. Who is able to scale tall buildings? Window washers, of course. Using his binoculars, he zoomed in on the window washers’ shirts to read a company name. Again, he turned to the Internet. He easily connected with the right people who were glad to alert their staff working at the Buckhead Grand to keep their eyes peeled.
Peregrines, who mate for life, don’t actually build nests. They deposit their eggs in a shallow, scraped depression high on a rocky cliff. At the Four Seasons in Midtown, eggs were laid in a ventilation opening.
Out of the blue, Crowley received a call from the Buckhead Grand’s building manager. Window washers found a nest. Not surprisingly, it was placed on the steepest, most inaccessible extreme slope of the building. Mama Falcon had laid her eggs inside an empty light fixture, an ingenious substitute for hidden crevices on a mountaintop. Two babies — known as eyasses — were inside. Crowley notes, “You couldn’t get a safer, more protected spot, and one with a fantastic 50-mile view.”
When asked how he felt when he heard the good news, Crowley says he marveled at how so many people collaborated to piece the evidence together, and how it all worked. He calls it “crowd sourcing” at its best.
Coincidentally, another law firm was also “bitten and smitten” by the pleasures of peregrine falcon watching. McKenna, Long & Aldridge occupies the top floors of the Sun Trust Plaza downtown. The firm funded a web cam that offered live updates of a peregrine nest located in a planter on a 51st floor balcony. The nesting site provided a soft bottom layer and protection from the elements and was too high for any natural predators. Unfortunately, the web cam is temporarily offline and should be active later this year.
The peregrine falcons’ odyssey from soaring on the brink of extinction to thriving as healthy Buckhead residents goes back to pioneering interventions made by scientists in the 1970s.
During the DDT era, peregrines apparently disappeared for years. The only known nest in Georgia was at Cloudland Canyon State Park in the early 1940s. In addition to the two known pairs in Atlanta, Crowley’s Buckhead pair makes three.
For a marvelous overview of the history of their decline and strong comeback titled "From Death’s Door to Life in the City," click here. Peregrines have been removed from the federal list of endangered species, yet Georgia still lists the birds as rare. Their scientific name, Falco peregrinus, means wanderer.
Peregrine falcons specifically are also the fastest birds on earth, clocked at 200 miles per hour when “stooping” to dive down on their prey. According to Crowley, it’s thrilling to watch them stoop. “They hug in their wings like a fighter jet.” He’s noticed they often dive into the forested North Buckhead neighborhood just across the Buckhead Loop with its diverse menu of smaller birds as easy prey.
No one knows if the Buckhead peregrines are offspring of the falcons who live closer intown. Regardless of why they chose the Buckhead lifestyle, their impressive adaptability and triumph over adversity is inspiring.
Bird watching is quickly becoming the No. 1 hobby in the United States. Master Birder classes — an eight-week course presented by the — are offered right here in Buckhead at the . The next class begins in February.
Lisa Frank is a certified master birder and president of Frank Relations. She lives and gardens in Buckhead where her yard is designated a backyard wildlife sanctuary by the National Wildlife Federation and the Atlanta Audubon Society.