Gyrfalcon, Falco rusticolis, Cayuga Co., NY, 12 January and 1 March 2003.
All pictures are © Kevin and Jay McGowan.
Lead photo was taken with an Olympus D-40 digital camera without a scope or binoculars. The video captures were taken with a Sony TRV830 video camera, most through a Swarovski HD-80 spotting scope.
Hosted by the
12 January 2003, Aurora, Cayuga Co., NY
Discovered at Farley's Point, Cayuga Co., NY by Steve Kelling, Wes Hochachka, and Ann Redelfs on 11 January 2003, Jay and I had the good fortune to get a brief look at this gray phase bird the next day. We had spent the afternoon positioning ourselves near Gyrfalcon food around the north end of Cayuga Lake, but had seen nothing (except thousands of waterfowl, including a male Barrow's Goldeneye).
We were photographing an unusual-for-the-season Savannah Sparrow on Lake Road, just south of Aurora, north of Long Point State Park. Suddenly a large raptor appeared from behind some vegetation uphill. By its flat gray color mottled with white, I knew it was the falcon. It soared briefly in the strong wind, circled back to harass some flying Canada Geese, then disappeared quickly out of sight to the south. Although the bird was present for only a few seconds, we were able to get some good looks and these few pictures.
Although the photographs leave a lot to be desired, they do help corroborate the field marks we saw:
The long tail, size and bulk of the bird, and the broad but pointed wings rule out nearly every other possible raptor. The body color and the two-toned wings help confirm Gyrfalcon.
In the following video capture the head appears very pale indeed. I don't know why it comes out so white, unless the bird was turning (which it was) and the head was lifted up and catching the sun.
The bird was seen subsequently ranging from Long Point State Park, north to Farley's Point, just south of Union Springs.
1 March 2003, Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY
We were looking at the outflow of the Union Springs springs into Cayuga Lake, hoping to turn up an interesting duck or a Killdeer. We saw nothing like that, but I scanned the distant ice edge off to the soutwest, hoping to find the Gyrfalcon that had been seen in the area in January. I immediately saw a large dark bird hopping around far off. I thought at first that it was going to be a crow because of its lively actions, but in the scope it was obviously a large raptor. It took us a while to decide between Gyrfalcon and immature Bald Eagle, but when it finally spread its wings, the pointed shape confirmed Gyrfalcon. It was pecking at some kind of carcass on the ice, hopping around and apparently trying to get a different angle on it. After a few minutes it flew farther south and went to another carcass. Jay saw white feathers come up from that, so it was probably a goose or swan.
The falcon was large and very dark. It appeared to be dark gray-brown on the back, with a lighter throat, and a darker mark behind the bill (the falcon mask). We were never certain of the cere and foot color, but both appeared dark and bluish. We never got any yellow off of it. The wings were long, rather broad, and very pointed (falcon-shaped). We could see the flashes of silver below of the flight feathers. The tail was long and stuck well out beyond the wingtips. The legs were covered in very thick "pantaloons" of feathers and I think were the reason it looked so Bald Eagle-like to me.
This shot, taken with the Olympus camera through the Swarovski scope is the best we have for coloring. It shows the brownish back, the bluish cere, and hints at a light patch immediately in front of the eye, behind the dark malar stipe.
The following shots were taken with the Sony videocamera through the Swarovski scope. In the dim light the video camera added a greenish cast to the images. I was able to get rid of it in one photo, but did not try on the others.
This shot of the bird looking directly at the camera shows the light throat.
I think this shot shows the eagle-like shape.
When the falcon flew, the large feet and bare tarsi were visible.
The silvery underside of the primaries is almost visible here.
Some discussion has occurred about the number of Gyrfalcons present along Cayuga Lake this winter, with Matt Victoria's photos clearly showing a dark immature, and other observers reporting seeing an yellow-cered gray adult. Jay and I cannot say for certain, but our impression was that the March bird was not the same one we saw in January. The January falcon had a bluish gray back flecked with white, like an adult gray phase Gyrfalcon. We did not note soft part color at that time and could not tell if it was an adult or a juvenile. The March bird was much darker, and appeared to be brownish on the back. We believe it was a juvenile, based on the bluish cere and non-yellow legs.
Return to the Bad Photos page.
Return to Kevin McGowan's home page.
Go to the Crow Page.
Go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's home page