As many people are aware of, starting with the winter of 2012/2013, Snowy Owls staged a dramatic and widespread invasion into southern Canada and the northeastern United States, with the biggest numbers during December to February. Gyrfalcons, the other massive arctic raptor, also pushed further south and in larger numbers than usual that winter. Sightings of these almost mythical falcons jumped from average winter counts of about 4 Gyrfalcons reported east of the Dakotas, to a shocking 15 birds! January to February 2014 had 19 Gyrfalcon sightings across the same range, also coinciding with higher-than-average Snowy Owl numbers.
Winter 2015 is off to a great start as well; there have been over 20 sightings east of the Dakotas so far this year! This winter could easily turn out to be the biggest Gyrfalcon invasion into eastern North America in decades. In particular, two of this year’s sightings are drastically further south than previous winters, with one falcon near Arcola, Illinois and another near Wallkill, New York. Based on information I could find on eBird, the Gyrfalcon age and color type demographics so far this winter have been across the board, with a wide range of color types seen and a mixture of first year, second year, and adult birds.
Wallkill, New York’s Gyrfalcon
Karen Maloy Brady discovered a second-year gray type Gyrfalcon on the Blue Chip Farm near Wallkill, New York on Friday, February 6th. Most birders assumed that the falcon would move on quickly, or wander widely and be difficult to track down, but so far that hasn’t been the case whatsoever. This massive, pale bird was showing well and being incredibly cooperative throughout the weekend, when easily over 100 birders were able to get views! Excellent photos were popping up all over the internet, and it was clear this bird was special – maybe once in a lifetime. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see a Gyrfalcon that was willing to show off so nicely, so I drove up to Wallkill late Sunday night and car-camped near Old Fort Rd.
Overnight at least 4 inches of fresh snow fell and when I woke up Monday morning it was still a full-on blizzard outside. I slowly drove down Old Fort Rd, scanning the treeline and sky for any sign of the falcon – at least as well as I could through the snow. I was the only birder in the area, but the roads were pretty bad and I wasn’t too surprised. Around 9:55am, I spotted a distant raptor shape perched in a snag on the north side of Old Fort and jumped out to get a better view in my scope. Sure enough, it was the Gyr! I could just barely make out field marks through the heavy snowfall, but knew the bird would have to move at some point so I repositioned my car at the top of the hill, and decided to wait the bird out. This turned out to be an excellent plan, as the falcon made multiple passes right by me – twice perching close on top of a telephone pole along the road!
It was clear the falcon had a handful of preferred perches from which to scan and hunt from. At one point it was perched in a spruce along Hoagerburgh Rd but then launched off and flew directly towards me, flushing up a flock of Mallards which it then chased in large circles around the area. The falcon focused on one female Mallard that had gotten separated from the others, and went into overdrive – swerving and stooping on the duck multiple times until it was able to force it down into the snow. The falcon took a wide U-turn and circled back, hovering over top of it’s potential prey. Just then, an adult Red-tailed Hawk cruised in from Bates Lane and broke up the action. The falcon retreated back to it’s favorite telephone pole. My heart was racing like I’ve never felt before. What an incredible bird, and what a great experience!
If you have the chance, I highly recommend trying to visit one of the Gyrfalcons irrupting into the northeastern United States this year! This is an incredible opportunity to study a rarely-seen bird of the arctic tundra, and it may very well be the last winter they come down this far south for a long time. Please share your 2015 Gyrfalcon experiences, updates, and photos in the comments of this post!