Gyrfalcon! by Carl Safina

January 18th, 2012 | 3 Comments
For the Birds

Gyr flying 1-14-12 photo: Carl Safina

Gyr takeoff 1-14-12 Photo: Carl Safina

Gyrfalcon Wantagh Pkwy 1-14-12 Photo: Carl Safina

Peregrine adult Photo: Patricia Paladines

On Saturday (Jan 14, 2012), Pat and I went to look for a Snowy Owl that’s been seen in the dunes at Jones Beach, Long Island, New York. It’s been there for a few weeks and it was seen the day before we went. (It was also seen the day after.)

But for us, and the dozen or so hopeful birders braving a bitter Saturday morning, no dice. Lots of stinging wind, but no dice. After surprising ourselves by enduring for a few hours of searching, we headed back to our car.

We had a choice of which route to take; our normal route Ocean Parkway, or Wantagh Parkway. Pat had lost her lens cap in the brush so the decision boiled down to which branch of the same camera store (Berger Brothers) we were headed to, the one in Amityville (we’d leave the park via Ocean Parkway) or the one in Syosset (we’d leave via Wantagh Parkway). We opted to check out the branch we hadn’t been to, which also would facilitate us bringing some matzo ball soup to my mother’s house on the way home. So we headed for the Wantagh Parkway, which, as I said, is not the way we’d normally go. Pat losing her lens cap set all these little plans in motion.

Just before leaving the park, we saw hundreds of Brant geese get up from Zach’s Bay in a big tight mass and fly around in circles. We pulled over and scanned for a bird of prey that might have roused them all. No dice. They settled, and we continued on and got on the Parkway. Less than a minute later we saw a large raptor headed directly away from us, just over the bridge. From its size and the fact that Red-tailed Hawks almost never come out to the beach, I guessed it might turn into a Rough-legged Hawk. But as we caught up with it, it turned into a falcon.

“If that’s really a falcon,” I said in an excited hush, “that’s a Gyrfalcon. Look how big it is!”

Just then, giving us an unmistakable size comparison, an adult Peregrine Falcon came streaking in; the Gyr dwarfed the Peregrine. Pat yelled, “They’re fighting!,” the Peregrine started repeatedly strafing the Gyr, and I kept driving like hell. The birds were headed rapidly away from us, but staying along the water alongside the roadway; I was trying to get alongside. Pat was scrambling to ready her camera and we were both uttering a lot of excited exclamations. What fun!

It was so interesting to compare the aerial, acrobatic Peregrine, who seemed to be all over the sky at once, with the Gyrfalcon, who stayed at tree level and often shot through spaces in the trees like a huge, dark Merlin, as if hoping to scare up some waterfowl along the shore.

Though we failed to get the prize-winning photo of the stooping Peregrine and the Gyr in the same frame—because I was driving 50 mph just to keep up with them and they were on my side of the car—Pat started shooting and scored a nice frame of the Peregrine in the air. And then we really lucked out because the Gyr landed in a tree in excellent light; and we both had our cameras ready to shoot.

The Gyrfalcon is the world’s largest falcon. It nests across the Arctic, and this one had likely come from Arctic Canada or Greenland. I’ve seen nesting Gyrs, including the stunning white morph, using an appropriated Raven’s nest on a cliff on the Arctic Circle in Greenland.

As for the name, my college roomate, Hollywood-based violinist Marc Sazer, found this:

Gyrfalcon \Gyr”fal`con\, noun. [from Old English expression gerfaucon, Old French gerfaucon, Late Latin expression gyrofalco, perhaps from Latin gyrus circle falco falcon, and named from its circling flight; or compare to English gier-eagle.

This is a very rare bird in our region. I haven’t seen one on Long Island in 30 years (I missed a couple that came and went), and those nesting birds in Greenland I saw way back in 1986.

Priddy Egciting!


3 Responses to “Gyrfalcon! by Carl Safina”

  1. Roz Meyer says:

    Carl and pat –

    How awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this with all of us!


  2. Zilla says:

    I am in Dutchess County, New York and I saw a huge bird of prey this morning that I have been searching the interwebz to identify and it may have been one of these! It was huge, sitting on a high branch with its front side facing me as I sat in my car waiting for my daughter’s school bus this morning in Hopewell Junction. The bird came out of the tree and flew toward and then above us, to another high tree across the street where it perched. A few ravens perched on branches nearby and they were dwarfed by this large light colored bird whose front side still faced towards me. I have lived here for over a dozen years and have never seen anything like this bird before, mostly we have red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons. This bird was bigger than those. I am not a birder so I cannot be sure, but your picture of “Gyr takeoff” looks exactly like the bird I saw this morning and no other bird I have found in web searches resembles what I saw today. I am a little over an hour north of you, perhaps your bird has flown up to my neighborhood?

  3. Zilla says:

    Beautiful pictures and exciting story, by the way! Thanks for sharing!

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