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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Field Note: Climate and the Majestic Gyrfalcon

Published: January 28, 2019


By Mark Seth Lender


A gyrfalcon, bloodied by a battle with a peregrine, finds a temporary perch. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

"In the Arctic, there is no such thing as bad luck when it comes to good stories," writes Living on Earth's Explorer In Residence, Mark Seth Lender. In this Field Note he explains why a series of unfortunate events on a recent trip turned out to be a blessing that brought a rare gyrfalcon sighting, the inspiration for an essay.

The gyrfalcon is something of a holy grail for birders. Creatures of a cold white land, they seldom range outside the Arctic. To see Gyrfalcon you must go to him. With time on your hands, and patience. I could not believe my luck.

I've found Frontiers North, with whom I made this trip, to be an extremely safe and reliable company and I would travel with them again in a heartbeat. But on this particular day we did one of those rough starts that sometimes happen in remote places. Our bear buggy became entrapped in the ice. A shallow melt pond, with a skin that should have been hard enough to handle our weight, had failed us. On inspection the ice was dark with bottom mud. The permafrost beneath had melted in the unnaturally warm summer and so the ice was not clean. Impurities in ice lower the freezing point (like salt on an icy walkway or ethylene glycol in your radiator). Consequently the ice was not strong, despite the fact that it was well below zero centigrade. The bear buggy that came to rescue us also went through, and the next! And it took a fourth machine with a towrope to pull everyone out.

Then we ran out of gas (bad gas gauge).

Then the bear buggy we transferred to had engine trouble. So we sat and waited for the parts to be helicoptered out from the town of Churchill.

Then the polar bears came to investigate (which was a treat).

And the gyrfalcon landed right beside us...

In the Arctic there is no such thing as bad luck when it comes to good stories.

There have been reports over the last couple of years of peregrines in serious conflict with gyrfalcons for nesting sites in Greenland. Apparently that unwanted interaction is happening in Hudson Bay. Warming both north and south of the Arctic Circle calls into question whether the gyrfalcon, Great White Ghost of the Arctic, will be left with any place to breed, or stand, or fly.

Listen to Mark Seth Lender’s essay Climate and the Majestic Gyrfalcon

Mark traveled with Frontiers North

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