Gyr Afterglow

Having an amazing experience in nature while observing an animal can stay with you long after the encounter.

Coming across a mountain lion on the Coast Trail in Pt. Reyes is an experience that readily comes to mind. Or watching thousands of snow geese erupt into the air in the Central Valley is another. Swimming with a 36 foot whale shark (and her 16 foot baby) off the coast of Utila is yet another.

I can now add to those encounters the one I had with the Earth’s largest falcon. It was not just that a Gyrfalcon is such an amazing raptor, but the quality and length of the experience. I had read tales of birders getting far off scope views of a brown smudge on a power pole of previous wayward gyrs. And this was far from my encounter.

Here are some of the reasons why my encounter with a gyrfalcon will last for a long time to come.

The Build Up

A gyr is rare south of Canada and even rarer in California. There are about 15 accepted Gyrfalcon sightings in California. And most of those are from extreme Northern California.

This is a bird that will make most California birders leave work early, jump in their cars and drive all night, just to get a far off glimpse of this falcon.

Luckily for us, this Gyr has been hanging around the Arcata Bottoms for over a month and we hoped she would stick around just one more day until we could focus our bins on her magnificence.

But with a storm rolling in, there was no telling if the bird would be heading off in any direction or if steady rain would hamper the visibility. Draining colors out of distant birds to become brown specks, morphing into a vertical branch on the power pole.

Gyrfalcons are listed as “Sensitive” on eBird and their locations are not available to the public. This makes finding their exact location a little challenging. The reasons for such secrecy is the place of prestige this sought after falconry bird attains in the world market. These hunting falcons are highly prized in the Middle East and because of the rarity of the bird, it was reserved for royalty. Wild birds are therefore, targets for animal smugglers as these birds can fetch $275,000 on the market.

The Performance

A peregrine falcon first called our attention to the presence of the Arctic invader as a PEFA stooped on the female gyr perched on a pole on the south side of Jackson Ranch Road. And for the next two and a half hours we were in the 360 degree theatre of the Gyrfalcon.

The peregrine falcon, Jackson Ranch Road.

Watching a perched gyr is interesting enough but we got so much more as the bird took advantage of the window between storms to hunt. Flying low across the fields and making repeated passes over the slough, chasing up American coots and grabbing them along the way but then releasing them as if she was just practicing.

At one point the gyr walked around the ground and appearing to be hunting a small mammal, which she ate on the ground. This falcon was showing behavior that was very different from the arial specialist, the peregrine, or the stilling kestrel. This falcon was so much more!

And she rightly takes her place with the mountain lion, snow geese, and whale shark as very memorable animal sightings in the natural world.


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