Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gyrfalcons are really, really cool.

So first let me say that Gyrfalcons are incredibly cool, perhaps one of the coolest birds likely to ever show up on the East Coast in Winter.  Birders are quite simply blown away by them and many wait years before they finally get to see one of these incredible high Arctic falcons.  They've been impressing people for a very long time too, Viking Kings and Medieval Monarchs coveted them and their image has been used in everything from fine art to fantasy fighter-jet designs.  Every birder hopes to find one of these incredible birds one day and in fact there have been a couple reported on the East Coast this Winter ... but somehow they seem to have generated as much angst as they have excitement.

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).
In early January a Gyrfalcon was found in the Connecticut River Valley in Central Massachusetts but the bird was hard to pin down and thus seen only occasionally by a few lucky observers.  Then last week hotshot Mass birder Marshall Iliff managed to find out where the bird was roosting every night - quiet an achievement in and of itself - and suddenly had to face a real dilemma.  Gyrfalcons are apparently still at risk of being trapped by falconers, and it seems that this has happened recently to at least one falcon.  If Marshall publicized the location of the falcon's roost he might be putting the bird at risk.  On the other hand, there are an awful lot of birders out there who would really, really like to see a Gyrfalcon.  In the end he compromised, setting up a sign-up sheet for folks who wanted to visit the falcon roost, a method which would hopefully let keen birders see the bird but allow the locals to vet out those who might be out to do no good.  Not sure if this approach will work, but after a lot of obvious angst, this was the approach that the Mass birders chose to take and initial reports seem positive.

I'd largely ignored the Massachusetts falcon shenanigans (I've already seen two Gyrfalcons in Massachusetts) until early Saturday morning when I got an email from Angus Wilson.  Apparently several New York birders had reported a Gyrfalcon on Long Island five days previously and the news was just getting out now (!).  Needless to say, a lot of folks (myself included) who hadn't heard a thing about it were a little 'surprised'.  Still I tried to put it out of my mind, and at 7am when I got up to go birding, I decided against going to chase a five-day-old Gyrfalcon record and headed out to Montauk instead.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Gryfalcon was very great and imaging. Painting is good and very nice. Congrats from Tribeca Parking.