The helicopter lifted off, disappearing into the thick, oppressive fog just as quickly as it had arrived. My colleague and I were thus left alone on the tundra, 85 miles from Nome and 25 miles beyond the nearest dirt road. This was the furthest either of us had ever been from civilization.
Our task was to enter and install cameras into three Gyrfalcon nests all located within a two mile radius of one another.
We began near a small tor, or rocky outcrop, and were happily greeted with a nest we could walk into from below. The female Gyrfalcon was attentively brooding two 4-day old chicks and one unhatched egg. As we neared the nest it was very clear she did not want to leave, and she allowed us to approach very closely before flying off. This was the closest either of us had been to a wild Gyrfalcon.
Our next nest was a two-mile hike away on a small cliff band above a fast flowing creek. We set up our climbing gear and rappelled into the nest to find three very young nestlings and one unhatched egg. Both Gyrfalcon parents flew over us, voicing their displeasure at these ‘nest intruders’.
Some of the variability in Gyrfalcon plumage was on display at this nest. The female was a typical grayish/brown bird, albeit a bit darker than ones we’ve seen thus far. The male however, was very light grey and their contrasting colors were stark when flying side-by-side. We have yet to see a truly ‘white’ Gyrfalcon.
We camped that night on a rocky ridge above the nest, waking in the morning to freezing fog, light snow, and a brisk wind. Everything was covered in a thin layer of ice as we set off to enter our third and final Gyrfalcon nest.
As we arrived, we were delighted to find this nest was also accessible via a scramble from below. We flushed a cold and stiff adult female as we entered to find four 6-day old nestlings lying beneath her. As the entire nest was covered in a thin layer of ice and the cold wind nipped at the nestlings’ downy feathers, we worked quickly to install our final camera and exit the nest.
As we hiked to camp to pack our gear, discussing our successful trip, the sun finally graced us with its presence after being enshrouded in fog for two days. Just in time to see our Robinson R44 helicopter swoop in to carry us back to civilization, seemingly as quickly as we had arrived.
Tags: alaska, Falco, Falco rusticolus, falcon, gyrfalcon, seward peninsula