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BRUCE MACTAVISH: King of the sky

A mighty gyrfalcon makes a magnificent pass over the Cape Spear parking lot. —
A mighty gyrfalcon makes a magnificent pass over the Cape Spear parking lot. — Bruce Mactavish photo

A powerful white gyrfalcon keeps visitors mesmerized at Cape Spear

Taking advantage of the abundance of light in the sky after supper, I decided to escape the winter routine of crashing on the sofa with a full belly while keeping one eye open to watch politicians fling dirt at each other on the television news. I went to Cape Spear for relief.


There was a dark sky in the south. A rain storm was forecasted to begin after dark. I had the whole place to myself. A cold easterly wind was banging in against the cliffs of Cape Spear by the old lighthouse. Gulls were riding southward on the updrafts with fixed wings. I noticed one was not a gull at all. It had narrower pointed wings and a completely different sense about it. I said to myself in an audible whisper, “That’s a white gyr.”

It was the mighty gyrfalcon. It hung still in the wind as if being pinned to a cord riveted to a point the sky. It was probably looking for its dinner out over the ocean — maybe a kittiwake or guillemot, both of which frequent this shore and are about the right size for a gyrfalcon to handle without much trouble. After a few minutes of being motionless in mid-air it tilted forward. Gravity came into play as it drifted away from the cliff. It increased the angle of its descent, gaining momentum. Then it started flapping its wingtips violently as it accelerated to a breathtaking speed and rocketed far out over the water. I lost it in the failing light. It was probably trying to surprise its prey with a lightning fast attack.

Ten minutes later it came back. I saw it down by the tip of the Cape, coming up my way, riding the cushion of air along the cliff’s edge. It glided past at eye level. It turned its head, acknowledging my presence, but did not take evasive action. It reclaimed its position in the sky, riding the updrafts high above the cliff. After five minutes of holding position, without so much as moving a wingtip, it slipped into another dive and jetted out into the evening light, far out over the ocean.

Over the next 40 minutes it repeated this dive routine four times. Each time it came back empty-handed proving that even a bird with this much going for is not guaranteed a free lunch. I went home feeling very content.

Early Saturday morning, Alison Mews, Ethel Dempsey and I headed to Cape St. Mary’s. It was nice to see spring robins all along the road on the way down, plus a few newly returned fox sparrows. It was, of course, cold and windy at Cape St. Mary’s but a few hundred swirling gannets and singing horned larks reminded us that spring was in the air.

We reached Gannet Rock and sat there looking around. There were no birds on the cliffs yet. Kittiwakes and a few dozen murres were in flocks down on the water, warming up to the idea of investigating cliff nest sites. Pairs of ravens played in the updrafts along the cliffs. A scattered bald eagle sailed by.

What photographer would not have paid a million dollars to have been there with the camera to capture that for the record?

Then, on cue, as if being released from a cage, a white gyrfalcon shot out from the cliff face. We had our binoculars fixated on the bird as it slowly sailed in our direction. Against the cold blue sky it displayed all the reasons why a white bird accented with black speckles and built like a jet is such a powerful piece of living art. It went off to the east into the glare of the rising sun. Eventually it flew back west and ended up back over by the lighthouse where, miraculously, a peregrine falcon appeared and started dive bombing the white gyrfalcon!

For a couple of minutes the two birds tussled in the air at clifftop level. Mostly it was the gyrfalcon shaking off the artificially fierce dives from the sharp looking adult peregrine. What photographer would not have paid a million dollars to have been there with the camera to capture that for the record?

After that we lost the gyrfalcon for a while, but then it blasted in without warning and landed on a ledge below us. Perhaps 80 metres away, it was a bit far for a killer photograph with the camera, but there were great views through a high quality 50X spotting scope. For 20 minutes it sat there turning its head alertly, looking at every gull, kittiwake and raven that moved. It was aware of our presence and perhaps that’s why it moved off to another cliff ledge where it was more difficult to spot. In the end, we left Cape St. Mary’s thrilled with our great views of a white gyrfalcon. A most excellent day.

The trouble was, I was still missing a superb photograph, due mostly to photographer error and not having had the right equipment with me at the right time. On Sunday I scouted around the St. John’s area for a gyrfalcon. Around noon word came from John Alexander that the gyrfalcon was back at Cape Spear. I had already been there earlier in the morning but wasted no time getting back. Shawn Fitzpatrick also heard the news. We were there for an hour before Shawn spotted it coming in from the east.

Ready and armed to the teeth with the best I had, I fired away as it made one close pass. It was a photographer’s perfect minute.

Recent columns by this author

BRUCE MACTAVISH: One foot in the door of spring

BRUCE MACTAVISH: Birds know it will soon be spring

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at His column returns in two weeks.

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