My friends and I always plan a New Years trip to kick off another year with a few days of birding the Atlantic Coast. This year the focus of our trip was clear from the start – there was a Gyrfalcon on Long Island. Reports had been coming in sporadically that the immature Gyrfalcon seen a few times last winter had returned to the same stretch of marsh, east of Jones Beach, New York. After researching on eBird, looking through listserve emails, and talking to a few local birders I felt like if we put in the effort, we might have a chance at seeing the falcon. As a huge raptor fan, I have dreamed about the day I would finally see a wild Gyrfalcon for the first time. Gyrfalcons aren’t just beefed-up Peregrine Falcons that hide away on the arctic tundra. This massive falcon combines the sleekness and speed of a Peregrine with the agility and inherent anger of the Northern Goshawk. If we could manage to find the Gyrfalcon, it was sure to put on a good show. It seemed like scanning from the Gilgo Beach Marina or the Cedar Beach Marina would be the best option. When the Gyrfalcon is seen, it is usually perched on an Osprey nesting platform or various snags out in the marsh. You would think that finding a plus size falcon perched around in the marsh wouldn’t be so tough, but there are also loads of Peregrine Falcons around to get your heart racing as well as Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, gulls, ducks….and of course, this winter – Snowy Owls.
We camped nearby on December 29th, and then on the morning of the 30th drove over to the Cedar Beach Marina just after sunrise and started scanning for the Gyrfalcon. Right away Josh Lefever spotted a Snowy Owl perched out in the marsh, and there was also a nice flock of 120 Boat-tailed Grackles foraging nearby. To our surprise two other PA birders pulled in and were also planning on spending the day searching for the Gyrfalcon. We decided to split up, so they stayed at Cedar Beach and Josh, Mark, and I went down to the Gilgo Beach Marina. For hours, the three of us stood at Gilgo Beach and scanned the marsh while Holly Merker and Brian Henderson kept watch at Cedar Beach. During that time we had 10 species of waterfowl, 2 American Bitterns, 10 Northern Harriers, 2 Red-tailed Hawks, Dunlin, gulls, and 4 Peregrine Falcons. Every hour or so I would text Holly to see what they had down their way, but there was no sign of the Gyr. A little after 11am, I spotted a large falcon fly in low and replace an adult Peregrine that was perched way out. This bird looked gray with darker wingtips, and a gray head. Josh, Mark, and I strained our eyes to watch the falcon which was probably two miles away. Two times the bird lifted off its perched, circled out into the marsh and then landed again. On the third flight, the bird disappeared and we didn’t see it again. I managed one distant shot of the bird perched. The three of us were confused. It might have been the Gyrfalcon, but it certainly wasn’t the look we wanted of our lifer. Clearly, the falcon was going to play hard-to-get but we weren’t about to give up.
Although it was lunch time and we hadn’t eaten all day, so we did take a short break….. It turned out to be a good idea. Our eye-balls needed rest from scanning for the past 4 hours, and in the parking lot of Field 6 we found an immature Glaucous Gull mixed with the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls! We went back to Cedar Beach and Gilgo for a little longer after lunch, but didn’t have any luck so we decided to try for a Black Guillemot about 45 minutes away in Sea Cliff. We struck out there too, but went to a Dark Star Orchestra show that night and were prepared to get back out looking for the falcon in the morning.
We spent the morning of the 31st, going back and forth between Gilgo and Cedar Beach with no luck finding the Gyrfalcon. Some other birders were out looking too so that kept our spirits up. Later in the day, we decided to take a break from the falcon search and head down to Jones Beach SP to see what birds were out on the beach. After parking in the lot, we hardly got 100 feet through the dunes before we saw photographers and a Snowy Owl perched nearby. In addition to the owl, a few waterfowl species were floating offshore and gulls were flying around but a flock of 250 Snow Buntings stole the show. The massive flock would land and frantically forage for a few seconds, then randomly launch back up into the air and somehow form an organized flock that would weave around and then drop back down into the dunes. At one point the flock was heading right for us and ended up landing practically at our feet. The three of us scanned as best we could through the flock but there didn’t seem to be an longspurs or larks mixed in, although we did run into a few Horned Larks back at the parking lot. That evening we watched thousands of scoters and eiders off Montauk Point and then went to another Dark Star show for New Year’s Eve.
On the first day of 2014 we slept in after a long night. We were committed to starting the year off with some good birds though, and this was our last day to try for the Gyrfalcon before we would have liked to head south to Cape May for a few days. In the back of our minds, though, we knew that if we didn’t find the Gyr today we would certainly be tempted to give it another day (or two). We pulled up to the Cedar Beach Marina a few minutes after 11am and could see two birders standing down at the docks already. When they saw us unload our scopes, they started waving towards us. They weren’t waving in a “Hello other birders!” fashion though, they were waving in a “Get the Hell down here, we have the Gyrfalcon!” sort of way. So the three of us ran down to the docks, set up our scopes as quick as we could, and sure enough – sitting on a short, dead cedar was a massive gray falcon, with its dark head swiveling around! After a few minutes, the falcon re-positioned itself on the cedar stag and flashed the pale undersides of its massive, pointed wings. The views we had were great, and I really felt good about that being my lifer view of a species I have wanted to see my entire life. But the bird wasn’t going to leave it at that, it wanted to make sure we understood just how powerful a bird it was. As other birders started to gather at the marina, the Gyr burst off its perched, its powerful wings propelling it at an incredible speed within seconds. The falcon was heading towards us, slightly off to the left. I looked around and saw that everyone gathered there had their eye’s glued to their scope eye-pieces. The Gyrfalcon was low over the marsh, still heading our way. Right before it reached the near edge of some Spartina, it spotted a small cluster of American Black Ducks, briefly put the breaks on, and then dove straight down into the flock, scattering the ducks in all directions. The falcon circled around and landed back on its cedar perch. Over the next 1.5 hrs we watched the Gyrfalcon go on a number of hunting runs, always flushing up small flocks of black ducks, but never making a kill. There were some close calls though! I managed to get decent (although distant) photos of one of the falcon’s attempts, shown below.
We were more than happy with our lifer Gyrfalcon experience, especially after three days worth of searching for the bird! On the drive off the island two Snowy Owls were perched along the fence running alongside the highway, hundreds of Snow Buntings and a few Horned Larks continued at Jones Beach, and 2014 was off to a splendid start. That afternoon we began driving south and spent the remainder of our New Years trip in southern New Jersey. Thanks for reading about our hunt for the Long Island Gyrfalcon, and I hope 2014 is treating you well so far!