Somewhere between 45-50 days after hatching, young Gyrfalcons take a leap from their nest and fly for the first time. The clip above shows an angsty female preparing herself for that first jump. Her two siblings, both male, had already left the nest. This fact added to her anxiety as they called from outside of the nest.
Last year I put some effort into seeing a Gyrfalcon’s first flight, but was never in the right place at the right time. This year, I’m making another attempt. The clip above – as seen from a tent through our Zeiss Diascope – is as close as I’ve come to seeing a first flight. I spent hours with my field partner Ellen in a tent outside of the eyrie waiting for the bird to make the leap. The clip shows the closest she came. After this intense flapping bout, she sat down and went to sleep. We had to leave before the bird left the nest, but the time spent watching her was worthwhile.
First hand study is invaluable. We live in an interesting world where technology gives us so much, so fast, so often. We are able to learn at such a high pace, and research is no exception. For instance, I’m gaining insight into multiple nests using motion-sensor cameras. This provides me an in-depth exposure to Gyrfalcon nests at a higher rate than ever before . This is all due to the camera technology. But I’m missing out on a slow pace digestion of first hand observation. I’m missing out on the whole picture. To get the full perspective, and truly see what it is like in the nest, I need to watch them myself.
While I watched, I took notes on behaviors. I also did a bit of field sketching. Field sketches force you to focus, and digest very small details that can heighten your understanding of your subject, but also enhance your observation skills. Besides all that, it is an enjoyable way to pass the time while the nestlings sleep.
Ellen and I took turns watching the nest. We were able to see two prey deliveries during our time watching. A male fledgling returned after one of the prey deliveries, hoping to get part of the meal. The female, however, would not oblige. I most enjoyed watching their behaviors. The birds interacted with one another in an endearing manner. They would pick at each other, as if preening. I wasn’t quite sure if this was curiosity, playful, or truly preening. They would also watch flies buzz around the nest, as if they were about to pounce. You could see the predator engineered mind in the way they followed the flies. They were figuring out what they needed to do to survive.
Although we missed the first flight of the female, we’ll have a few more opportunities to try with other nests. This means more hours behind the scope to watch, and more hours to learn.
On every North American birders “must see” list of Alaskan specialties is the Bluethroat – Luscinia svecica. Not only is this a bird with a restricted North American breeding range, it’s aesthetics and behaviors make it one of the holy grails of an Alaskan bird trip.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the habitat that the Bluethroat occupies. I’ve heard many singing males, and on occasion I’ve really listened to them. The Bluethroat sings a compilation song, featuring samples taken from sounds in its surroundings. When I’ve listened and put effort into teasing out each component, I’ve heard the iconic “cricket” chirp which interrupts a mash up of American and Pacific Golden-Plover, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Arctic Warbler, and many more. It’s a strange challenge, but a lot of fun. The Bluethroat tends to sing in flight, while doing a flutter like display before descending to a perch. However at times I’ve seen a Bluethroat in an intense song bout, perched atop a willow. It’s these times that I’m able to really watch the Bluethroat, while listening to his repertoire.
It’s no wonder why birders fancy this bird. The male has a multicolored throat that stands out in the brown landscape during their pre-breeding displays. As a mimic, their song fits an old world trend which betrays its natural history. The Bluethroat is an old world species, with a breeding distribution which just leaks into North America. For the birder that goes beyond sight and sound, the distribution adds to the allure.
I don’t get to illustrate much while doing field work here in Alaska. Rarely, poor weather and a break in the work will provide me the opportunity to sit down and draw. I’ve had the Bluethroat on my list for a very long time, so I thought I’d seize the rainy days here in western Alaska. Next I’ll be focusing on more Gyrfalcon illustrations.
The best part of working on a project focused on nesting Gyrfalcons is interacting with the nestlings. I can’t help but spend a moment or two to admire them each time I get one in my hands. They are young, yet full of personality and intelligence. I lose the ability to articulate the experience of dropping into a nest, and being the first human these nestlings have ever seen. Their response is remarkable, as they recognize me as an intruder and prepare to fight. There is, however, a certain degree of curiosity in their eyes. What impresses me most is their confidence, seen in their posture and stare.
We schedule our second round of nest entries when the nestlings are 25 days old. At this point their legs have fully developed, so we can outfit them with aluminum USGS leg bands. These bands give them a unique identification number, so that if the bird is caught or found researchers can tell where the bird came from, and where it went.
As the nestlings grow, they begin to realize the tools that evolution has provided them to hunt, kill, and defend themselves. When we enter the nests to band, the nestlings have developed into fighters. They bite, rip, and use their talons to lash at intruding researchers. Because of this newly developed tenacity, working with them takes its toll.
It’s great to see youngsters that have so much fight. This aggressiveness will translate into behaviors necessary for their survival. Although the most aggressive young are not the most enjoyable to handle, it means the birds have what it takes to be a large falcon in the Arctic.
Apart from banding, we have a number of other tasks to complete while handling the young. We take DNA samples, weights, wing and tail measurements to estimate age, and check for parasites. After each nestling receives its treatment, we switch out batteries and memory card in the nest camera. We will not come back to the nest until the young have left, so it’s important to make sure the camera continues taking data until the end.
So far, we’ve been to three of our twelve nests. Our hands have a lot more abuse ahead of them, but we are excited to continue nonetheless. More pictures and stories to come.
Thanks to Ellen Whittle for the photos of the work