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Bruce Mactavish: Gyrfalcons fly by here

The white gyrfalcon is a powerful hunting machine from the north.
The white gyrfalcon is a powerful hunting machine from the north. - Bruce Mactavish photo

It was a busy week for birdwatchers at Quidi Vidi Lake as one of the greatest shows known to birdwatchers was on display. Some gyrfalcons had come to town for a little hunting trip.

Gyrfalcons hunt birds for a living. They play for keeps. They are the biggest of the world’s falcons and said to be the fastest on a level flight. They are an overpowered racing machine mesmerizing to watch in action. They do not go after small stuff like starlings and juncos. The gyrfalcon is one of the few birds of prey that can take down birds as large as a gull. This is what brought the show to Quidi Vidi Lake.

The pack ice spreading down the east coast of Newfoundland is pushing birds ahead of it. Gyrfalcons being an Arctic falcon are not afraid of ice. In fact, ice is an asset to gyrfalcons. It provides resting possibilities when hunting offshore among the open leads and loosely packed ice. However, too much ice eventually moves their prey targets farther south, so they follow. The birders were hoping some gyrfalcons would make it to the Avalon Peninsula. And it indeed happened. Three recognizably different birds were photographed in the St. John’s area within a week.

The race across town from my place of work was fast, but not in time. I was crushed. Two gyrfalcons, one of them a white morph, fighting over a gull on the ice was a National Geographic photographic moment never to be repeated. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event lost.

The gyrfalcon thrill seekers focused on Quidi Vidi Lake. Gyrfalcons, unlike any other bird come in individual colours ranging from a nearly uniform dark chocolate brown to white with black flecks much like the pattern of a snowy owl. A light brown gyrfalcon was becoming regular at Quidi Vidi Lake. It was striking terror among the pigeons and the entire gull flock. It was regular as in two or three sightings per day, but at unpredictable times. Gyrfalcon chasers had to be prepared to put in a long wait at the lake and would maybe get a show. Tickets were non-refundable.

Then the gyrfalcon made a kill at the west end of the lake. It nailed an Iceland gull which was nearly as big as the falcon. It brought it down on the ice maybe 75 metres from shore. This was breathtakingly close for a gyrfalcon.  For 30 minutes it plucked at the gull and gorged on the breast meat. This gave time for other birders who heard the news to get to the west end of the lake. While the gyrfalcon gorged on the gull, the birdwatchers gorged on the sensational views. Cameras clicked madly. It was a new bird for some and the best look ever for all in the audience. Then the unthinkable happened. A white gyrfalcon flew in and tried to take over the prey. The white gyrfalcon is perhaps the most spectacular bird on the planet.

There were confrontations with spread wings held high and claws flinging in the air. It was mostly posturing because neither bird could risk injury with their livelihood dependent on being in top physical condition. Finally, the brown gyrfalcon relinquished its prize. There were not much more than scraps left by this time. The white bird hopped on the carcass and picked at the bones for 10 minutes or so and then flew away. The crowd was left standing gob smacked.

That is the way I found them when I arrived five minutes after the gyrfalcons had left. In the excitement of the event, news of the two gyrfalcons was not properly distributed over the usual network of bird hot lines. I was one of those left in the dark. I found out too late. The race across town from my place of work was fast, but not in time. I was crushed. Two gyrfalcons, one of them a white morph, fighting over a gull on the ice was a National Geographic photographic moment never to be repeated. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event lost.

The white gyrfalcon was not seen again but the brown one made several hunting trips to Quidi Vidi Lake over the following three days. It executed wild dives into the pigeon flock and kept the gulls jumpy. Finally, it did make another kill. It was an Iceland gull again. This time it enjoyed the meal without being disturbed by another falcon but was too close to the trail and a walker unknowingly flushed the bird. When the weekend finally arrived I was able to devote large blocks of time to wait for gyrfalcons at Quidi Vidi Lake and at Cape Spear where yet a third gyrfalcon was photographed. It did not happen for me. Not yet. There is still a month of prime gyrfalcon-watching time left.

Disappointed I should not complain too loudly. I have been blessed with gyrfalcon encounters over the years in the Newfoundland and north into the Arctic where they nest. The attached photograph of a white gyrfalcon was from a boat while in the ice of the high Arctic. One gyrfalcon is never enough.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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