Getting my Gyrfalcon fix

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A juvenile, gray-phase Gyrfalcon flying over the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.

When I got my first SLR (film then!) camera in December of 2000, I took a lot of “nature photos”.  This included many bird photos, but I wasn’t really trying to shoot more birds than other subjects.  I certainly didn’t consider myself “hooked” on birds, birding, and bird photography early that winter.  That changed on a trip up to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in the central part of South Dakota.  Local birders were seeing a Gyrfalcon, calling him the “Pheasant Farm Gyr” because of his hangout near a farm that raised pheasants for release (and hunting).  I really didn’t understand what the big deal was about a Gyrfalcon, until reading about it more, and hearing about them from a couple of local birders.  I decided to make the trip to try and see and photograph it.

It couldn’t have been easier, at least in terms of seeing the bird.  I showed up at the location where the bird was said to be hanging out, saw one of the local birders, and asked if he’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole.  Just like that, I had seen my first Gyrfalcon.

I still think that was what sparked my interest in birds and bird photography, because from that point on, I almost exclusively shot birds.  Gyrfalcons are such special birds, very difficult to see in the lower 48 states.  Central South Dakota is definitely a hot spot though.  Despite it being a 3-4 hour drive, I’ve tried to make about 2 all-day birding trips to the area every winter.  I’ve seen my share of Gyrfalcons (including one magical day when I saw 5 individual birds), but it’s quite hit and miss.  In my dawn-to-dusk birding adventures in the area, I’d say I probably end up seeing a Gyrfalcon about 1/4th of my trips, so it’s still a nice treat to find one.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

The same Gyrfalcon resting on top of a telephone pole for a minute before taking off again. Love seeing Gyrfalcons, but I do wish they’d choose more photogenic perches! Seems like pretty much every perched bird I see is high on a telephone pole.

I took the day off today with the sole purpose of trying to find a Gyrfalcon.  It’s been a while since I’ve gotten good looks at one, and there have been some reported on the grasslands south of Pierre.  I struck out trying to relocate a couple of recently sighted birds, but while on “County Line Road” south of Pierre, I came across a juvenile gray-phase Gyrfalcon.  This by far is the most common age/color that you see around here.  I’ve only seen one Gyrfalcon that wasn’t a gray/intermediate phase (a dark phase from a number of years ago), and have never seen a light/white bird.  Of the Gyrfalcons I’ve seen in South Dakota, probably at least 3/4ths of them have been juvenile birds.

This one was semi-cooperative for photos.  When I first spotted him I thought it was a Rough-legged Hawk, because I saw him hovering near the road from a distance.  Rough-legged Hawks are one of the few big raptors that actually hover, hence my initial ID, but as I got closer I saw it was a Gyr, holding the same relative position in flight thanks to the strong 30-mph winds.  As I got closer, he flew down to a nearby telephone pole, where I was able to watch and photograph him for a minute or so.  He then took off and headed south across the grasslands, ending the brief 2-3 minute encounter.

Any birding day is always a success if you see a Gyrfalcon!  A nice day for other raptors as well, but it was definitely nice to end a relatively long Gyrfalcon drought and get my Gyr fix.

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