Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gyrfalcon Excitement

I took a coffee break from fire wood chores and lucked out to see a Gyrfalcon hunting the  willow ptarmigan that were in the area.

WIPT_flgt18_6976I was watching a snow bunting at the feeder when I saw a gyrfalcon launch from of the tall piling  next to our storage building.  With strong wing beats the bird started across the island, staying about

10 feet off the ground until he was within 200 meters of its prey.  It then dropped close to the ground, nearly blending in as I watched from my position.   The falcon traveled over a half mile to get to its target and I couldn't see what the bird was after  until it made a strike at the end.  Then a large flock of willow ptarmigan exploded into the air, close to 130 birds.  Perhaps in the confusion of all the birds erupting out of the grass, the falcon didn't make a hit.  Most of the ptarmigan headed upriver in one group, but 3 to 4  flushed to the right and away from the main group.  The falcon zeroed in on one of these GyrinFlight1sm_3880birds, which had headed  out across our lake.  The falcon over took it about halfway across the lake and made a solid hit. The ptarmigan tumbled into the water.   The falcon made 5 or 6 attempts to retrieve its prey, but perhaps being an immature bird, it was a bit tentative about plucking it out of the water.  A couple times I could see white feathers drift off when it tried to pick up the ptarmigan, just not getting a solid grip.
After giving up on getting the bird out of the water, the falcon headed back across the island to where other ptarmigan had scattered.  The next ptarmigan flushed, started climbing upward, and was able to stay above the pursuing falcon, but after about a third of a mile and gaining altitude to 150', the falcon gave up the chase, and returned to the general area from where that ptarmigan had flushed.  I have seen a lot of ptarmigan chased by snowy owls and other falcons, and this was the first time I had experienced a ptarmigan executing such a climbing escape maneuver.  Normally they fly fast and low until they find a place in which to hide.
While the gyrfalcon was chasing the second bird, I made my way out past the storage building from which the falcon had started this hunting cycle.  I had just got out there when two more ptarmigan flushed and they both turned and headed for the buildings. The falcon NearMiss1_3859zeroed in on one of the fleeing birds, but just seemed to be a bit slow in reacting to the twists and turns of the ptarmigan.  As they flew towards me, I was able to film a couple of the near misses. 






The start of the run to safety, and a near miss.





Ptarmigan able to make a sharper turn and stay just ahead of the falcon.








After the first try the immature falcon continued to drop back every so slightly.










Away to safety as the falcon looses speed.

Both ptarmigan made it to the safety of the building and hid in the grass.  The falcon landed on a drying rack that was stored next to the metal building and sat for about 5 minutes calling and twisting his head looking for the hiding ptarmigan. 








The young bird was making a call that reminded me of other young birds when begging for food. Perhaps it was thinking how easy Mom made catching things, and if she was here there would be something to eat.  The falcon took off and flew over me, then made two passes around the buildings before landing on the tall piling.



  Willow ptarmigan hiding in tall grass by building as gyrfalcon searches for it.



After a short break it was airborne again and headed off towards the north end of the island a mile away.  I never saw the young falcon catch another ptarmigan but several small groups passed through the yard in the afternoon and evening and they were very alert and acted like they had been chased.

What excitement for a bright sunny day in the Arctic!

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.