Follow that falcon


This week, a guest blog by Richard Sale, Arctic explorer, photographer and author of Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife.

The accumulated whitewash identified the Gyrfalcon nest site. The little cave high in the cliff was an ideal spot, the whitewash suggesting that generations of Gyrs had used the well-hidden, well-guarded spot. This year’s female was barely visible as she sat incubating her clutch. Gyrs are among the earliest to breed of all Arctic species and this female had started before the sea ice at the base of the cliff had even begun to melt.

Access to the cave was difficult, a sloping ramp of rock offered a chance, but there was still an overhanging section below the cave. I climb rock faces as a hobby, but the week before, out on Hudson Bay, I had slipped in the boat from which I was photographing Beluga Whales, caught my hand on the gunwale, and fractured the thumb of my left hand, which was now the size of a football and hurt like hell. With my thumb splinted against my index finger with insulating tape – no medical facilities out in this remote place – I had continued to head north. But for a one-armed solo climber the cliff face was just too intimidating.

A high-angle scramble up frozen mud and scree, using the tripod as a makeshift ice-axe, allowed me to approach the spot where the male Gyr had an observation post. From this point he watched for any sign of predators on the prowl, in defence of his mate and her precious eggs. He saw me, and let out that awesome but beautiful kaa-kaa-kaa that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. He was magnificent, almost pure white, ghost-like as he flew silently through the cold air.

Over the next few days, perched in a cramped and fairly miserable hide, I got to know him well. He hunted regularly for his mate, feeding her so that she would not have to leave the eggs, which would have quickly chilled in the sub-zero temperatures. Then he would sit on his observation post, resting and peering out over the sea ice. Once he let out a sharp call, and exiting the hide I saw him dive and hit a Snow Goose which had strayed too close, killing it instantly but knocking the unfortunate bird into a stretch of open sea, from which he could not retrieve it. At other times he plucked his lunchtime grouse just a few feet away. Days passed and my hand hurt a little less. That made the long, long snow-scooter ride back to civilisation much less painful than the outward journey had been. It wasn’t the pain that stopped me now, but the need to look back for one more glimpse of Gyr.

Richard Sale is the author of A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife.

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