ATLANTA to COLLEGE PARK — We had several long brainstorming meetings to prepare for this road trip. It was the kind of desperate meeting where each idea got more ridiculous than the next. In one of those meetings, editor Gary Gramling, our resident funny guy, brought up this idea: “What if we did something with real, live falcons? Like falconry?” Everyone us nodded in agreement. Yes Gary, that is gold! I then started googling falcons in Georgia, and I emailed a guy, Buster Brown, of Georgia Mountain Falconry. His reply:
I know that the Super Bowl is a big deal, but you guys are doing a road trip from NY to Houston, and if the Falcons win you want to stop by the North Georgia mountains and do a story on falcons in Georgia to tie in to the Falcons mascot? Wow. Somebody has some serious imagination!
After he got over his initial shock, Buster connected us with the two falconers. Day Five was the day that we lived out our serious imagination.
First stop was to visit Dale Arrowood, an avid falconer who owns several birds. He’s also a shooting instructor, so met him at a shooting range in College Park, about a half hour outside of Atlanta. Getting there was a bit of a challenge because the range was set back on a narrow dirt road, not visible from the main road. Once we found it and passed all the Danger signs, Arrowood introduced us to his hybrid falcon, Nimbus. Have you ever heard a more perfect falcon name than Nimbus? I thought about Harry Potter’s broomstick, the Nimbus 2000, a lightweight, speedy flying machine, basically a falcon. Nimbus got his name because while Arrowood was training him, he lost sight of his bird and thought he had lost him permanently high among the nimbus clouds.
Nimbus is a mix of two European falcon types, the Lanner and Saker, not native to Georgia. Arrowood’s apprentice took the hooded Nimbus onto his arm, and Tim asked what the hood was for. “Well,” Arrowood replied, “wouldn’t you need a crash helmet if you were flying 250 miles an hour?” With no previous knowledge of the art of falconry among our group, it was difficult to tell if Arrowood was serious. Tim followed up: “This might be a dumb question, but how does the falcon see where it is going if it flies with a hood on?” Arrowood laughed and laughed, “We take the hood off.” Like blinders for a horse, it’s to keep the bird from getting frightened. It’s OK, Tim. We were all thinking the same thing.
Once our cameras were in position, Arrowood’s apprentice threw Nimbus into the air. Arrowood stood in the middle of the field, swinging a lure made of buffalo with some quail meat as bait. “D.R.T Quail,” as Arrowood called it. “Dead Right There Quail.”
Nimbus soared majestically overhead and dove for the bait several times. After a few minutes, the bird was tired and Arrowood was “tireder.” We all gathered in the field and took turns putting on the stiff glove and holding Nimbus. Jenny and I were both scared at first when Nimbus hopped onto our arm, but we soon found we were one with the bird.
Arrowood isn’t much of a football fan, so didn’t take the bait on any of our leading questions. Why would a Falcon make a good mascot? This year’s Falcons team has a lot of speed. This bird can reach 250 mph in the air…
Nimbus isn’t native to Georgia, but there are real falcons in Atlanta. After our session with Arrowood—thanks!—we hopped in the car and drove back to the city, heading straight downtown to the SunTrust Plaza Tower. There we met biologist Jim Ozier, who spent much of his career in wildlife conservation with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Ozier took us up to the 53rd floor of the building, more than 500 above the street, to watch for the pair of peregrine falcons that nest on the balconies of Dentons law firm each spring.
On the way up, Ozier explained how these peregrine falcons came to make their home in this urban habitat. In 1942 the peregrine nearly went extinct in Georgia because of the use of the insecticide DDT. A restoration effort began in the ’80s, and peregrines were raised in captivity and then released into the wild. Releasing the birds into their natural setting in the mountains is risky because owls often prey on the young falcons. In 1989 three birds were released from the top of the Georgia Power building, where they would be safe from owls and other predators. The idea was that the birds would eventually make their way back to the mountains when they were acclimated to life in the wild. Instead they took a liking to the high ledges on skyscrapers and to city life in general. “They really like expensive real estate,” Ozier said jokingly. There has been at least one nesting pairof falcons in downtown Atlanta every year since the ’80s. Until last spring, the only nesting falcons in Georgia were the ones in downtown Atlanta, and these peregrine falcons are still crucial to the species’ survival in Georgia.
The elevator doors opened onto a lobby, and behind the reception desk was a floor-to-ceiling window. The receptionist spoke about the pair of falcons as if they were old friends. “Oh, I haven’t seen them yet today,” she said. “She’ll usually land on the ledge behind me and sit there for awhile.” She told us that people are often shocked when they walk out of the elevator and see a falcon perched in the window.
Jim then introduced us to the “Falcon Mom” of the office, Laura Miller. She’s Dentons’ events manager and has been at the firm for the last 21 years, so she knows these falcons the best of anyone in the building. She took a real interest in them, and is now somewhat of an expert on peregrines.
Miller doesn’t take the title of Falcon Mom lightly. She’s named the two different pairs that have nested in her territory. Frederick and Gracie were the first, and the current are Spencer and Kate. The falcons are truly like her children. One year Atlanta received three to four inches of snow in March, right in the middle of nesting season. Miller came into the office on Saturday to check on her birds. “I was so worried about them, but Kate was right there. She was sitting on top of her eggs, in the planter box, totally surrounded by snow.”
Miller and Ozier took us straight to one of the balconies to watch for the birds. During nesting season, Miller sends out an email to all the law firm staff to warn them about going onto the balconies. “These birds are super territorial,” she said. “I wear a hard hat when I go out here during nesting season. Once, I got dive-bombed in the back of the head. I was wearing the hard hat and I still about fell over.” Since it isn’t nesting season, it was safe for us to go out onto the balcony.
After just five minutes on the balcony, a falcon flew into view. “I think that’s Kate,” Miller said. The bird landed on a ledge overlooking the Georgia Dome. “I always post photos of them on Facebook and say, The real Atlanta falcons,” Miller said.
Kate took off and began circling the building. We looked to our left down the other side of the building and there was another falcon, likely Spencer, just sitting on the ledge below us. He was totally relaxed. It was such a cool moment to see these birds flying among the skyscrapers with the Georgia Dome and the new Mercedes-Benz stadium in the background. I noticed a fat strip of velcro on the metal railing of the balcony, and Ozier said the it’s there to prevent the babies from slipping off railing when they try to fly for the first time. It’s a long way down from here.
After Kate flew off, everyone but John decided to go down one floor to get a closer view of Spencer. John stayed on the original balcony, waiting to catch some footage of Spencer taking off. By the time we got down one floor and found the office that would have the best view of Spencer, he had indeed flown the coop. Having stayed behind, John caught his takeoff on film.
It was jersey day at Dentons, so Miller was wearing a white Matt Ryan No. 2. “I always keep saying that we need to do something with the Atlanta Falcons,” she said. “Maybe I’ll name the next bird after a player.”
After falcon spotting, it was off to The Varsity, Atlanta's classic old fashioned drive-in diner. We ordered basically everything—shakes, onion rings, fries, cheese dogs, burgers, chili dogs, donning the vintage paper hats and scarfing down the food. We met a Varsity regular, Danny Dorminy. He comes to the diner with his brother, Bobby, and sister, Sue, every two weeks or so, after his cancer treatments at Emory Hospital. Danny had a Falcons hat on. "This is our year," he said. Danny has been a fan for 40 years, and although his cancer is incurable, he's "fighting it anyway." We left the Varsity, shakes in hand, inspired by Danny and his siblings’ positive attitude.
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