Birds of Chignik Lake: Gyrfalcon – World’s Largest Falcon

Gyrfalcons Louis Agassiz Fuertes Birds of America

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 Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Order: Falconiformes
FalcoLatin 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 1960-63Rare, near Black Lake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Rare in all seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© 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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Great Blue Heron – a Rare Visitor to The Lake

Great Blue Heron

A young Great Blue Heron stalks the shadow cast by a skiff in search of Chignik Lake’s char. Although this bird stands three-and-a-half feet tall or perhaps somewhat taller, it probably weighs only five pounds or so. This is quite likely the first photographic documentation of this species on the Alaska Peninsula.

“A tiger – in Africa?!” The line is a favorite line from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, pointing out the improbability that it is a tiger that has bitten off the leg of Eric Idle (playing army officer Perkins) while he was sleeping. Nor is the Latin for tiger Felis horribilis as is proclaimed by Graham Chapman in his role as Dr. Livingstone. The film came to mind one cold November morning when in the predawn light beginning to illuminate the beach outside our window, I suddenly noticed the unmistakable silhouette of a heron.

(All) ” A heron?! At Chignik Lake?!”

Yes, Ardea herodias paid us a visit. In fact, as of this writing, I believe the bird is still here despite snow on the ground, freezing temperature and the imminent probability of the lake freezing in the next few days. I saw our new friend briefly perched on a utility pole near the lake last night, though this morning’s frigid 12° F temperature surely gave him pause. I use the pronoun “him” advisedly. Letting aside the fact that the English language’s “it” seems unduly impersonal in talking about living beings, it is generally young males of any given bird species that are the first to push the boundaries of range maps.

Great Blue Heron catching Dolly Varden

Two char in one grab! The overall dark, non-contrasting plumage indicates an immature bird. Despite its youth, this heron was nonetheless an efficient fisherman. We watched him work the shoreline taking one Dolly Varden after another. His best success came in the shadows of beached skiffs. The wary bird has been feeding in the twilight of dawn and dusk, which makes me grateful for a camera that will handle high ISO values.

As can be seen on the map below, Great Blue Herons normally range as far north as coastal Southeast and South Central Alaska. With the population of this species growing in the lower 48 and as the climate continues to warm it will be interesting to see if herons become a more common part of the Alaska Peninsula’s avian fauna.

Great Blue Heron Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Order: Pelecaniformes
ArdeaLatin = heron
herodiasAncient Greek erōdios = heron

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare to perhaps occasional visitor. Unconfirmed sightings have been reported by local residents of Chignik Lake as well as at Chignik Bay and, further down the Peninsula, Perryville. 

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Not observed

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Not observed

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not observed

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.