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April 2022

Vol. 50, No. 2

About Books: GYR!

Mark Lynch

Gyrfalcon: The One Who Stays All WinterGyrfalcon: The One Who Stays All Winter.

Norman Barichello. 2019. Victoria, British Columbia: Friesen Press.

“Gyrfalcons are the polar bears of the bird world, at the top of the food chain in a stark environment.” (p. 21)

Here in southern New England, we are fortunate to occasionally see birds of prey that breed in the Arctic. The sightings of these sought-after species occur most often in late fall or winter. Everyone is familiar with the Snowy Owl, the target for every photographer and would-be photographer. Thanks to the Harry Potter movies, this owl species has achieved celebrity status, which means it is also one of the most harassed species. Birders and nonbirders alike often try to get too close to get a calendar-worthy shot of this charismatic bird. In southern New England, Snowys are the most often encountered Arctic bird of prey. Less well known to the general public are Rough-legged Hawks. They are a true Arctic species, breeding in tundra habitat around the world and only periodically moving in winter to more southern areas. Probably the least known Arctic bird of prey to occur in New England is the Gyrfalcon. This impressive, large and powerful falcon is every bit as charismatic and dramatic as a Snowy Owl. We just don’t see them here as often.

Veit and Petersen list Gyrs as a “rare, but regular migrant or winter visitor.” (p. 144 Birds of Massachusetts) That may have been true 20 years ago, but in recent years Gyrs have become a decidedly less regular migrant to our area. Most of my handful of sightings were in the 1980s, with a few at the beginning of this century. Most of the birds I saw were ones that stayed for a few days. Even if they do stay, Gyrs typically range over a large area and can be tough to find at any one time.

I can remember all my Gyr sightings in detail; this falcon makes that kind of impression. My first was at Quabbin Park in the winter of 1982. We drove in and, at the spillway, perched right across from us, was a large gray Gyrfalcon with a Red-tailed Hawk perched on either side of it. The Redtails were screaming at it. That bird ranged all over Quabbin for a few weeks, apparently eating gulls. On February 8, 1983, I was able to get Nancy Clayton on a Gyr that was on Cross Farm Hill, Plum Island, perched on a goose that it was determinedly plucking. To say that Nancy loved raptors is an understatement. Nancy and her husband Alden, who used to write this column before me, were well known in the birding community at the time and wonderful people to bird with. To watch Nancy be thrilled by this sighting was as great a treat for me as seeing the Gyr itself. On November 15, 1987, I had my birding class out on Halibut Point, Cape Ann, when suddenly all the gulls began to swarm in the air, agitated and calling. A dark Gyr burst right through the ball of gulls and flew on in the direction of Plum. I was so excited that I let out with a loud and long burst of expletives, which quite surprised my class. My point is that Gyrfalcons get that kind of reaction from birders. It is a spectacular falcon, the world’s largest, holds your attention, and seeing one is always a memorable event.

Probably no bird has been more admired and sought after since prehistoric times than the magnificent Gyrfalcon, living illusively in some of the remotest and difficult landscapes of the circumboreal subArctic and Arctic regions of the world. (p. iii, Tom J. Cade in his forward to Gyrfalcon)

Gyrfalcon is a monograph about what we currently know about this little-known species. Because of the remoteness of the Gyrfalcon’s nesting range, few ornithologists have spent years studying this species as Barichello has. In fact, some of what is known about Gyr behavior comes not from field ornithologists, but from falconers who own Gyrfalcons. Gyrfalcon is also a history of that bird in human cultures in North America, Asia, and Europe.

Finally, this is a book about Arctic ecology. Gyrfalcon is a detailed account of the interconnected lives of two Arctic species: Gyrfalcons and ptarmigans, both species that have “boom and bust” cycles in their populations. Norman Barichello is a “northern ecologist. His knowledge is derived from over 44 years in Canada’s Arctic and subArctic, as a biologist, naturalist guide, and advisor to the Kaska Dena.” (from back cover to Gyrfalcon) His hard-earned knowledge of Gyrfalcon behavior is invaluable, and much of it will be a revelation for birders.

Gyrfalcons are large, heavy-bodied falcons. Females are much larger than males. The large size is an advantage to Arctic nesting birds. Their down is very dense, helpful in the brutal, long winters. Their talons are very large and enable them to grasp and hold the ptarmigan.

The wings are long and pointed but not as exaggerated as those of the peregrine, its smaller and well-known cousin. This heavier “wing-loading” enables the Gyr to sustain speed over a longer distance and maintain speed when climbing. It is well known among falconers that Gyrfalcons on the attack can climb and maintain speed at a steeper angle than most birds. Compared to other falcons, their range of attack is said to be two or three times greater (Nelson 1956). The Gyr also has a longer tail than most falcons, serving as a rudder. The superb engineering of the falconidae then is further adapted in the Gyrfalcon for sustained speed and agility. This airframe makes the Gyr one of the most formidable avian predators, capable of hunting both birds and mammals, large and small. (p. 3)

Their plumage can be gray, almost black, or white to silver. A few tawny individuals have also been noted. Feathers are patterned with varying degrees of black contrasting bars, stripes, or spots. The densest breeding population is in northeast Iceland. In the northern Yukon, Barichello found Gyrfalcon nests about 12 kilometers apart.

Wherever they have been found, they have impressed human cultures, and there are many regional names for Gyrfalcons, such as Labrador Falcon, Iceland Falcon, Greenland Falcon, Snow Falcon, Winter Falcon, and Ptarmigan Hawk.

Those in the eastern Arctic refer to the Gyr as Kigavic, meaning “the grasper” (Hohn 1969). In the western Arctic, the Inupiat have three names for Gyrfalcons depending on its age, possibly because the feathers were of great value (Irving 1953). Youngsters were called Atkuaruak, meaning “like caribou mittens”, juveniles were names Kitgavikroak, and adult Gyrfalcons were referred to as Okiotak, “the one who stays all winter.” (p. 13)

Barichello’s favorite area to study Gyrfalcons is the Yukon’s Ogilvie Mountains in northern Canada. This is an extremely remote area of mountains and tundra. Swarming with mosquitoes in the short summer, cold and barren in the long winter. In winter, the temperature may get as low as -45 degrees C! It is hard to believe that any active creature survives the winter here:

Living in the far north in the winter is indeed a challenge. Daylight is reduced to a few hours, temperatures are severe, and much of the land is blanketed by snow. Of no surprise, there is little evidence of life. Many northern creatures escape the rigors of the cold and insufficient food by hibernating or migrating. Of about eighty species of birds that nest in the area, only eight overwinter. Most of the small mammals are below an insulating cover of snow, either sleeping in dens or concealed by snow cover.

Yet, here lives the Gyrfalcon. (p. x)

On page 85 there is a photograph of Barichello’s small basic study blind set against a vast background of frozen tundra and mountains. This is what it takes to study Gyrfalcons. Most of us could not do this. Around the globe, Gyrfalcons are found north of the 16th parallel. Gyrfalcons need two things to survive the seasons in the Yukon: suitable nesting cliffs and plenty of ptarmigan.

I suspect the basic criterion to explain Gyrfalcon distribution is simple: where there are enough ptarmigan and adequate nest cliffs in open subArctic and Arctic environments, there will be Gyrfalcons. Indeed the crucial factors for persistence of Gyrfalcon populations in Russia, according to Vladimir Morozov (2011), are high numbers of prey and available nest structures. (p. 17)

Like the Gyrfalcon, ptarmigan stay all winter. In winter they are often found in willow draws along streams in the mountains. They are not easy for Gyrfalcons to catch. Typically, they remain still and are cryptically plumaged. They may even plunge-dive deep into the snow to escape predators. Rock and Willow ptarmigan are the species most common in Barichello’s study area. Ptarmigan is the dominant prey item of Gyrfalcons, but in summer they can expand their diet by preying on Arctic ground squirrels (that hibernate in winter), nesting shorebirds such as Upland Sandpipers, and even some waterfowl such as Harlequin Ducks.

Gyrfalcons hunt by soaring great distances, especially along ridges. They will also perch on some prominent point and “still hunt.” Gyrs will carefully watch other animals in the area, such as foxes, to see if they flush ptarmigan or other prey species. Once they hit the ptarmigan and mantle it on the ground, or attempt to carry it to a nest, they must be careful of Golden Eagles. Golden Eagles are another important species in this Arctic ecology. They will take the ptarmigan from the Gyrfalcon, and if the Gyrfalcon refuses to give up its prey, Barichello discovered that the Gyrs were often injured in the dispute. Ravens and Snowy Owls are also a challenge for nesting Gyrs.

Ptarmigan populations have what is called boom and bust years. Some years there are lots of ptarmigan around, and Gyrs have a higher success rate of fledging young. In other years, populations dip, and there are far fewer ptarmigan in winter. This pattern seems to be cyclic, but the factors that cause these cycles are not well understood. Gyrfalcon breeding success closely follows the ptarmigan cycles, and Gyrs have their own boom and bust years that echo those of ptarmigans.

Gyrfalcons need cliff faces higher than 50 meters on which to nest. Ideal nesting locations are recessed into the rock face and have some kind of a roof to protect them against wind and precipitation. It is not known if Gyrfalcons compete for these limited perfect nesting locations. Barichello has studied the long and complex mating and nesting behavior of the Gyrfalcons. It begins with courtship flights at the end of March or early April, a time when it is still very much winter in the Arctic.

The typical nesting schedule for Gyrfalcons works as follows. The breeding pair engages in courtship activities for at least four weeks, then lays three to four eggs at two to three day intervals, incubates the clutch after the second egg for thirty-five days, then spends the next forty-seven days feeding youngsters in the nest. After the young leave the nest, the adults continue to feed the young, albeit less frequently, for another five weeks. Adding up the days, nesting Gyrfalcons invest well over 140 days (almost five months) to produce independent youngsters. How do they accomplish this feat when winter prevails in the north from October through April, and summer lasts at best three months? (p. 55)

Gyrfalcon is a fascinating book that brings the reader into those wild and isolated mountains of the northern Yukon and into the life of a rarely observed bird of the Arctic. We so rarely see this bird, it has always been a challenge to grasp what its life is about, how it lives and hunts. The last chapters of Gyrfalcon trace these falcons’ importance to northern hemisphere cultures, particularly for falconry. Naturally, Gyrfalcons were prized by many countries and cultures, even though their members never ventured far enough north to catch Gyrfalcons on their nesting grounds. Apparently, since medieval times or before, expeditions would be sent north to procure these birds for royalty. It is possible that Vikings used Gyrfalcons in trade. Even today, Gyrfalcons are the prized hunting birds of modern falconers.

The elephant-in-the-room question is, “How will these magnificent birds survive global climate change?” Barichello addresses this issue in his last chapter. Unsurprisingly, it does not look good.

Recent findings have also found disturbing changes in the dynamics of the ptarmigan cycle, including disruptions in its regularity, wider amplitudes, a dampening of peaks, and in one case, the disappearance of the cycle itself (Newton 2011). In some areas of the Yukon, the ptarmigan cycle seems to be faltering, and the peaks are disappearing, depriving Gyrfalcons of that periodic surge in food supply (Mossop 2011). Although climate change is thought to be the cause, the agents of these adjustments in the ptarmigan cycle, and its corresponding effects on Gyrfalcons, are unknown. Are these changes the outcome of random, unpredictable weather events that are modulating the cycle? If catastrophic weather events affect ptarmigan population dynamics and if these weather events are occurring more often, can this account for changes in the ptarmigan cycle, including the dampening of its peaks? (p. 136)

Gyrfalcon is liberally illustrated with color photography, most of it by the author. The scenes of the near pristine landscape of the north Yukon are breathtaking to the point of seeming surreal. Besides many photographs of Gyrfalcons in every stage of development, as well as flying, perched, and hunting, there are also photos of the other denizens of this Arctic landscape. Also included are a number of full-page color reproductions of the art of Vadim Gorbatov, a Russian-born painter who is interested in exploring the relationship of humans and nature. In Gyrfalcon, Barinchello reprints several of Gorbatov’s extraordinary paintings of falconry through the ages, each one featuring a Gyrfalcon. My favorite is a wild painting of Genghis Khan hunting Great Bustards with a Gyrfalcon.

Gyrfalcon is a must-read for any birder interested in birds of prey or Arctic ecology. If you have never seen a Gyrfalcon, this book will make you hope that another Gyr wanders down to the saltmarshes of Plum Island sometime soon.

NB: Mark Lynch would like to thank Paul Roberts for alerting him to this book and helping him get in touch with the author.

Reference

  • Veit, Richard R. and Wayne R. Petersen. Birds of Massachusetts. 1993. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon Society.

To listen to Mark Lynch’s conversation with Norman Barichello, go to: <https://www.wicn.org/podcast/norman-barichello/>


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