Sunday, January 16, 2005

Gyrfalcon in Dearborn, 2005

The Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the world’s largest falcon, nearly the size of a Red-tailed Hawk.  This Arctic-nesting bird is rarely seen in the United States.  When populations of ptarmigan, chicken-like tundra birds that are a main prey item of Gyrfalcons, fall below certain levels, some Gyrfalcons move into southern Canada and the United States in the winter.  When one is found, many birders will rush to see it.

According to The Birds of Michigan, 40% of the state’s records are from Sault Ste. Marie, 20% from Whitefish Point in the U.P., and 10% from the Muskegon area. As of 2005, there were only eight published records from southeast Michigan:
  • A questionable record from Washtenaw Co., 1974.
  • A questionable record from Jackson Co., 1997.
  • Three records for Wayne Co.: Nov 9, 1995 at Lake Erie Metropark (not Oct 9, as has been published elsewhere); Nov 9, 1997 at Point Mouille headquarters (perhaps another bird at Lake Erie Metropark); and Nov 19, 1999 at Lake Erie Metropark.
  • Three records from Pointe Mouille SGA in Monroe Co.  One from the 1970s; one from 12 to 27 March 1994 (this bird also crossed into Wayne Co. on occasion); and one from 6 to 15 March 2003, also at Pointe Mouillee.
Thus it was sensational when Kim Hall, Julie Craves, and Darrin O’Brien located a subadult (first year) Gyrfalcon at a Dearborn office complex while participating in the annual Detroit River Christmas Bird Count on 1 Jan 2005. The Rouge River Bird Observatory coordinates the Dearborn portion of the count.

Initially, the bird puzzled the observers. The possibility of Gyrfalcon seemed so outrageous that they watched the bird move from a small woodlot to various trees, light posts, and buildings in the Parklane Towers office complex for some time while they convinced themselves they were actually looking at this species, a first for Dearborn.  The Parklane Towers are large concrete structures that are among the tallest in the immediate area. Their cliff-like appearance may have made the falcon feel at home.

They quickly got the word out via cell phone and the Internet, and by the end of the afternoon over 20 birders had ignored their hangovers, abandoned the Rose Bowl, or otherwise dropped their New Year’s Day plans to see this rare visitor. Gyrfalcons come in three color types, or morphs: white, gray, or dark.  This bird is a dark morph. In the Arctic, Gyrfalcons feed on large birds and small mammals.  Here, this bird likely fed on rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, and ducks. It was last seen on 4 Jan 2005.

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