Sunday, February 23, 2014

Utah Snowy Owl Turns Into Escaped White Gyrfalcon

Around the middle of last week I and other Utah birders received an alert from eBird that someone had reported a Snowy Owl at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, Utah.  Based on the brief description provided by the observer I decided that the most likely scenario was a novice birder seeing a Barn Owl. Parts of the description, such as "small head" and "narrow pointed wings" were off for a Snowy Owl. I essentially ignored the alert and figured a confirmation would come in from another birder if it was really a Snowy Owl. Friday afternoon Sean Jorgensen, a Salt Lake County birder and photographer, emailed an image of a white bird he found in the area where the Snowy was reported and asked for an ID. It was a white-morph Gyrfalcon, an Arctic species which sometimes moves southward into northern US states during winter months. I replied to Sean's email as soon as I saw it to ask if the bird had jesses or any straps on its legs, thinking an escaped falconer's bird was the most likely case.

I left work and drove to the location which was about fifteen minutes away. I arrived to find about ten local birders looking up at the "Snowy Owl-like" falcon from the street bordering the golf course. Seeing the white belly and black marking on the upper side began to make sense as to why a novice birder associated it with a Snowy Owl. I'm glad it was reported so others would eventually recognize it for what it was and get proper attention focused on the bird.

The falcon stretched a bit and revealed the falconry gear attached to its legs. Bummer! Not a legitimate Gyrfalcon sighting, but it was an awesome bird to watch.

Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Shortly after arriving on the scene our curious group of onlookers moved to the back of the home and onto the golf course. We essentially claimed one of the fairways. The golfers, neighbors, and other passersby seemed more interested in the bird than whether we were standing in the playing area. The falcon occasionally fluffed its feathers, revealing some of the small black spots on an otherwise bright white underside.


Mike Shaw from Hawk Watch International came by with a bal-chatri trap that held two Siberian Hamsters safely inside. The goal was to lure the falcon to the trap so it could receive proper care and be reunited with its owner. I had a semi-paparazzi experience when the celebrity falcon took flight from the pole, checked out the trap, and circled our group couple of times. I've never heard so many shutters going off as I did that afternoon when the falcon circled us in flight. The falcon was somewhat interested in the hamsters, but passed on them multiple times. The likely reason for this is that captive falcons are generally raised on birds rather than mammals.

We were rewarded with a few curious raptors as we stood around and observed the Gyr. Before we left we had seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Merlin buzz the Gyr while perched and while flying. The Merlin ended up chasing an American Kestrel when it saw that the Kestrel had a mouse in its talons. The two scuffled in the air until the Kestrel dropped the mouse. The Merlin dropped straight to the ground, retrieved the mouse, and flew off into the distance. A Cooper's Hawk was observed soaring in the distance as well. Here's one not-so-great image of the Merlin as it passed. The lighting was tough so I turned up the exposure compensation hoping to bring out some of the details. It was a dark bird to begin with and the lighting didn't help matters.

Female Taiga Merlin Flying Over After Buzzing an Escaped Gyrfalcon at Mick Riley Golf Course Murray, UT
Here are a few of the flight images I captured during some of the passes made by the falcon.  Our blue sky backdrop soon turned blah as clouds rolled in. It would have been nice to have a little more contrast from the sky for the flight shots.

Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
Escaped White Gyrfalcon Found at Mick Riley Golf Course in Murray, UT
The falcon was finally caught after I left. I was informed that Hawk Watch International had fed the bird and was holding it safely to be returned to its owner.

On my way home I passed a Best Western Hotel in Lehi and noticed about seven falconry birds on the lawn next to the hotel. I stopped to investigate and ended up meeting falconers who were in town for the annual Sky Trials, a competition for falconers. I met Chris, the president of the Utah Falconer's Association, and the owners of Falcon Force, Vahe and Becca.  They run a bird abatement business that uses falcons and hawks to rid farms, airports, and other properties of nuisance birds such as starlings and gulls. I showed them the images of the Gyrfalcon and they put out the word among falconers to locate the owner.

I captured an image of a very large female Harris's Hawk after visiting for a while with Chris, Vahe, and Becca.


I am glad that birders are out watching nature. We've discovered and rescued countless animals during our routine bird outings. We know and are networked with lots of great people who give their time, talent, and resources to care for some of nature's finest creatures. I'm grateful for those people.

6 comments:

  1. Love your write up on the Gyrfalcon Jeff!

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    1. Thanks, Mia. I enjoyed seeing you there.

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  2. Nice job, Jeff. What a great bird and experience for all of us!

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    1. That was a nice bird and sharing the experience with you and others made it even better.

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  3. Thanks for the write up, Jeff. It was good to meet you that night at the hotel. I am working with Mike from HWI and will be in contact with the DWR tomorrow to provide assistance in getting the band number linked to the falconer and help return it. Great photos! And as Gyrs go, this one is beautiful!

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    1. I'm really looking forward to hearing the future of the falcon. It was a striking bird. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I hope the Sky Trials went well for you and the others involved.

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