|Gyrfalcon by John James Audubon (perhaps one of his best known pieces). Unfortunately,|
most Gyrfalcons are gray or brown and the pure white form is rarely seen down here in
the South (well this is the South if you're a Gyrfalcon).
Montauk was pleasant and I spent a happy few hours looking at scoters, eiders, two Iceland Gulls, some Great Cormorants, and several other nice Winter birds. Then, just as I was scanning Ice-House pond for ducks, I got a call from Corey Finger ... apparently the Gyrfalcon had been seen again a few hours earlier.
Whenever Corey calls me with news of a rarity I am always at the wrong end of the island. Today was no exception but I didn't hesitate to head back to the car and plot a course to the location of the last sighting. These drives are excruciatingly tense experiences and each 'real-time' update just adds to the stress level. It took me an hour and thirty minutes to get to Gilgo Beach and while I was driving I heard that the bird had been re-found but was very distant. I heard that the ID was not 100% pinned down but that it looked good. I heard that it was now raining heavily (which I hoped would keep the bird in place) which was severely impacted visibility - a distant blob in the rain. I heard that the bird had been seen to flap it's wings and was definitely a large falcon. Every minute was an eternity but in the end I pulled into the parking lot and joined Corey, Seth Ausubel and Pat Lindsay (and soon thereafter Shai Mitra) who were scoping a distant falcon in the rain.
The falcon was a long way away but my first impression was positive. It had the 'husky' look that Gyrfalcons have, and more importantly it had relatively short wings what projected only part way down the tail. While the views weren't great I pretty quickly realized that this was a 'Gyr' but stuck around for a while hoping that the weather would clear or that the bird would fly. The rain kept coming though and the bird stayed hunkered down so in the end I reluctantly headed back Out East hoping for better views the next day.
|A 'lump' on an Osprey-platform ..... which at 60x through the scope turned out to be|
the Gyrfalcon. The photo below is massively cropped but you can see what it is.
I didn't rush back to Gilgo Beach on Sunday so when I pulled into the parking lot at around 9am I joined a fairly large group of birders who were watching the bird. Over the next couple of hours we had distant, but satisfying, scope views of the Gyrfalcon sitting on Osprey-platforms, flying across the marsh, and even catching, plucking, and eating a Black Duck. Lots of birders arrived throughout the morning and everyone seemed pretty excited, and relieved, to see the bird. Here are some better photographs (and some commentary) from Corey Finger over at 10,000 Birds.
So why had it taken nearly a week to get the word out on this bird? Well apparently the folks who'd originally found the bird were worried about falconers after hearing the story from Massachusetts (as recounted here). Unlike Mass though there wasn't an attempt to organize broad access to the bird and only a small group of 'friends of the finders' were let in on the secret and saw the bird during its brief first appearance. The news of the sighting only came out five days later when the finders, having not seen the bird in a while, assumed that it had left the area and was thus safe from threats. Can you fault their intent ... no, not at all ... although I think the location of the bird would have made it really hard for a falconer to do it harm. Still, Long Island has a horrible history of record suppression and of cliquish birding circles not sharing information. Things seem to have been a lot better in recent years but a situation like this definitely reminded a lot of folks of the 'bad old days' and left a bad taste in a lot of mouths. There are probably no right answers to a situation like this, but I'm sure it'll be much discussed in the coming months. In the end, most everyone who wanted to see the bird got to see it, so I'm sure that all will be forgiven. Who knew that watching birds came with all these social and ethical dilemmas?
In the end I was happy (although I am going to buy a new digiscope rig after the frustration of trying to get any kind of shot at that distance). The Gyrfalcon was a state bird, only my 3rd in the ABA, and only the 7th one I've ever seen. A very special bird, and I'm glad I got to see it.