The legend likely began when Ponder was training Galen, his red and black Harris' Hawk.
"One night, I was here around midnight training him to come back to me," Ponder recalls. "So, I would let him fly up into the trees and get him to come down using a lure [a piece of meat]. One night, a Secaucus cop who was patrolling the area came over to me and asked what I was doing and I told him, 'I'm training my hawk.' Over the next hour or so, I think every Secaucus cop who was on-duty that night must have come through the park to have a look."
Other Laurel Hill regulars have also mentioned "the falconeer," as park visitors have dubbed Ponder, in casual conversations.
The burly Ponder, who has a head full of long blond hair, would cut a striking figure most anywhere. But add a midnight backdrop and a big hawk, and it's easy to see why half the town drove by for a look-see.
"I first learned about falconry as a kid. I read a book when I was a child written by Jean Craighead," Ponder explained, "and the subplot was about falconry, and it just sort of fascinated me when I was young."
An 'old world sport'
Falconry is "an old world sport that has been practiced for 4,000 years," Ponder stated.
"Basically, you're hunting with your bird instead of hunting with a gun."
Using a trained bird of prey, Ponder continued, a falconer will allow the bird to fly up into the trees. Then, with the help of a dog or a stick, the hunter beats weeds and underbrush in an attempt to flush out other animals - say, a rabbit.
Once the bird sees the animal on the ground it will swoop down and attack.
"I've heard falconry described as the ultimate form of bird watching because you're basically letting the bird do what comes naturally," Ponder said. Despite falconry's deep roots as a hunting sport, the federal government did not officially recognize it until the 1960s, when environmentalists launched an effort to protect birds of prey.
Prior to the '60s it was "open season on birds of prey," Ponder said. So to protect certain species, he continued, the federal government wanted to prosecute anyone who owned a bird of prey, which would have included falconers.
"Falconers basically said, 'Well, wait a minute. This is a legitimate sport, and there are legitimate reasons why someone might own a bird of prey,' " Ponder said.
So that falconers could be protected under the law and still practice falconry, the government decided to implement a licensing system similar to the hunting licenses issued to other sport hunters.
These are tough times for falconers in New Jersey, Ponder said, because open park space, where falconers train their birds, dwindles each year.
"Most of the places where I trained my birds have either become condos or Home Depots," he said wistfully. "I think every falconer in the state can probably tell you what their favorite training spots were, and what new development now sits on that site."
He even commented on the subtle changes in Laurel Hill Park.
"My favorite places to train in Laurel Hill, where I trained my Harris' Hawk, are now baseball fields," added Ponder, who performs as a falconer at Medieval Times in Lyndhurst.
To train as a falconer, an apprentice must first find a licensed falconer who is willing to train him or her and serve a mentor. To get licensed, the apprentice must also pass a state-issued test.
Since the sport is "very hands-on," as Ponder called it, apprentices can only learn by doing, which means the apprentice must actually go out into the wild and catch a bird to train.
"A lot of people see a falconer and say, 'Wow, that's really neat,' until they find out how much hard work is involved. And it's not as much fun as it looks. It's really a lot of hard work. If you have a real passion for it, you'll stick to it. But if it's just a passing fancy, there are other things to occupy yourself with."