In the absence of a photo of my own of this magnificent species, here offered is Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ beautiful plate from the 1936 edition of the classic Birds of America*.
Twice this past fall a dark, bulky hawk-like shape quite unlike our resident Rough-legged Hawks and our occasional Peregrine Falcons flew close, directly over my head. In the first instance Barbra and I were cruising downriver in our scow, and although I had my camera with me, it was to no avail. “Gyrfalcon!” I shouted to Barbra over the noise of the two-stroke. We were fairly certain we’d seen this species at a distance in previous years, but this was by far our best look at one.
In the second instance I was by myself at the boat landing. With no camera along, I watched through my binoculars as the falcon cruised downriver along the far shoreline. Suddenly it veered my way, crossed the river, and for a few exciting seconds hovered low, directly over my head as though investigating me. I lowered my binoculars and, as Joel Sartore might say, simply enjoyed “petting the whale,” understanding that in that moment I was probably closer to a wild gyrfalcon than I ever again would be. As suddenly as it had changed direction to come my way, it was off again, this time heading for downriver islands where ducks and yellowlegs can often be found feeding in the shallows.
At a length of roughly two feet from beak to tail and bulkier even that most buteos, this is the world’s largest falcon. It is almost strictly a denizen of the far north where it typically preys heavily on ptarmigan. The “gyr” of gyrfalcon is pronounced “jer” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World. “Gyr” may have evolved from the Old High German or Norse for vulture, or it may have its roots in Greek and Latin indicating curving or circular flight bringing to mind the opening lines of Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning, into the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer…
It’s one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language, various lines showing up in everything from book titles to folk and rock music to film. It was especially frequently drawn from in the year 2016, a fact which might pique interest…
Although Gyrfalcons occur in both a dark, gray plumage morph and in what must surely be a spectacular white morph, the handful of birds we have seen along the Chignik Drainage have all been of the darker variety. This is a fairly rare species; encountering one is always a thrill. Look for a bulky silhouette with much more rounded wings than the related Peregrine Falcon.
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Falco: Latin for falcon – from falx, falcis – sickle, as in the shape of the falcon’s talons
rusticolus: Latin – rus = country + colere = to dwell; country dweller
Status at Chignik Lake: Rare
David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare, near Black Lake
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Rare in all seasons
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.
*For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake