Encounter with the big one

Bruce Mactavish
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Falcons are a small group of specialized hawks that are distinguished from other birds of prey by their sharp pointed wings. Falcons tend to hunt in the open using their speed to overpower and surprise prey.

There are four species of falcon occurring in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are the merlin, American kestrel, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon.

Merlin is the most numerous and widespread species. It arrives in the spring, nests during the summer and leaves for the south again in the fall.

It is a small falcon not much bigger than a blue jay in size. It more than makes up for its size by being built of pure muscle. With speed and agility, it preys mainly on forest songbirds during the nesting season and on sandpipers during fall migration.

A very few stay for the winter, but it is not nearly as numerous as the similar sized sharp-shinned hawk which raids our birdfeeders during the winter.

The American kestrel is the most uncommon of the four species of falcon. Small numbers nest throughout Newfoundland and southern Labrador.

Unlike other species of hawk in our area, they choose an old woodpecker hole in a hollow tree for a nest site. And unlike the other falcons, they do not use speed for hunting. In fact they often hover motionless in the air looking down in the grass for mice, small birds and even large insects.

The kestrel is kind of a pouffy member of the falcon family. They are also brightly coloured like a butterfly. Most leave us in the winter but occasionally one or two will overwinter on the barrens of the southern Avalon Peninsula.

The peregrine falcon is the most iconic falcon in the world. It occurs on every continent except Antarctica. It is thought to be the fastest bird alive, with apparent speeds of more than 300 km/h during dives.

The peregrine is indeed a master of the air and exciting to watch. It is crow-size or a little larger.

The coast of Labrador is one of the most important nesting areas for this bird in eastern North America.

It nests on cliffs and hunts shorebirds, seabirds and small ducks. Most peregrines leave the province in the winter, but a few are now overwintering among the sea cliffs of Cape Race and Cape St. Mary’s. Occasionally one will get a taste for pigeons in the city of St. John’s.

The biggest

I saved the best for last. The biggest falcon is the gyrfalcon. It is an Arctic bird though it does nest on the north coast of Labrador which, of course, is Arctic-like.

Gyrfalcons are as big as a raven. They are a very powerful bird capable of taking down any species of duck, large gulls and even occasionally geese.

They are not afraid of water and will fly several kilometres offshore hunting dovekies and other small seabirds. Some of them spend the entire winter far out on the Arctic pack ice hunting seabirds.

Gyrfalcons are northern specialists. It is an almost mythical creature for birdwatchers in the same way that polar bear, narwhal and walruses are for most people.

We are lucky in Newfoundland that gyrfalcons include the tip of the Northern Peninsula as part of their normal wintering range. However, birdwatchers rarely get up there in the winter. When a gyrfalcon shows up in southern Newfoundland, it is big news.

It happened last Sunday.

Ken Knowles, John Wells, Chris Brown and I were birdwatching at Long Beach near Cape Race. We split up, with each of us covering a quadrant of the fields and beach. When we all got back to the car we compared notes. It was just standard fare today. Then someone noticed a bird sitting on a hydro pole back up the road we had just come down. It was a large hawk but too far away to identify with binoculars. Through spotting scopes, we could see it did not have the white line over the eye like a northern goshawk. Besides, it seemed to have pointed wings like a falcon.

But why couldn’t we see the black moustache stripe characteristic of the peregrine falcon? Because it doesn’t have a moustache stripe — because it is a GYRFALCON.

We piled in the car and carefully drove closer. We did not want to flush it. Then a pickup truck roared right past us and past the gyrfalcon. It did not flinch.

So we drove right up beside it as close as we could get on the road. The bird was relaxed as long as we stayed in the car for an unbelievable hour. Looks were fabulous through binoculars and microscopic through spotting scopes set up in the car.

The picture taking didn’t stop. It was a dream moment.

That pole will be a shrine that we will acknowledge every time it is passed from now on.

Finally, the bird decided to move. It flew low and slow over the ground as if hunting for ptarmigan, another of its favourite foods. It perched again on another pole. It sat there for 15 minutes before repeating the process.

We left it there fully saturated with fresh visions of gyrfalcon. The location, the surprise factor and the company was an experience you couldn’t buy with money.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Arctic, Southern Labrador Cape Race Gyrfalcons Southern Avalon Peninsula Antarctica North America Northern Peninsula Southern Newfoundland Long Beach

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