White Gyrfalcon – Yet another escaped falconry bird!

In the four and a half years I have been in Utah I have seen and photographed four escaped falconry birds, one in 2009, two in 2012 and yesterday I photographed another one, an escaped White Gyrfalcon. Just last month another escaped Red-tailed Hawk was found hanging by it’s leashes in a tree by my friend and fellow photographer, Jeff Cooper.

The night before last a report came on in UBIRD of a Snowy Owl nearby but when a description by the spotter of the bird came in I suspected that it wasn’t a Snowy Owl and that it might have been a very light Barn Owl. The description included stated the bird had a small head, narrow tapered wings and that the bird turned its head in an owl-like fashion.

People went looking for the bird yesterday without anyone spotting a Snowy Owl and some time in the afternoon a photo was sent in to UBIRD by Sean Jorgenson that clearly showed a Gyrfalcon in the same area that the Snowy Owl had been reported.  I hurried to get my gear together and Ron and I headed to the Mick Reilly Golf Course in Murray.

Gyrfalcon getting ready to lift offGyrfalcon getting ready to lift off

Before leaving for the Golf Course it was reported by people with the Gyrfalcon that it was an escaped falconry bird but we wanted to see it any way. It was a gorgeous white Gyrfalcon sitting on a power pole! By the time we got there the clouds had rolled in so my images are not what I would have hoped for them to be of the largest falcon of North America.

There was a large group of birders and bird photographers looking at the falcon that included people I knew and people I had only previously known through communications on UBIRD and via email. The Gyrfalcon was the star we were just the paparazzi.

Gyrfalcon lift offGyrfalcon lift off

Mike Shaw arrived with his gear to recapture the escaped Gyrfalcon and while we were there the falcon made several passes at the bal chatri trap. It was recaptured after we left and was transported to a mew at Hawk Watch International to be fed and housed until the “owner” claims it and if they don’t a decision will have to be made about the Gyr.

Gyrfalcon in flightGyrfalcon in flight

One of the biggest concerns for escaped falconry birds is that their hardware; anklets, jesses and leashes, can become entangled and the bird will die by starvation. The Red-tailed Hawk that Jeff located was found hanging upside down by its leashes. The Red-tailed Hawk was rescued thanks to Jeff finding it.

It bothers me greatly to have found three escaped falconry birds myself. It bothers me that without Jeff finding the Red-tailed Hawk it might have suffered and died. It bothers me that the Gyrfalcon escaped and could have come to harm.

Seeing this spectacular Gyrfalcon was amazing and sharing the experience with other people was great.

The number of escaped and found falconry birds in this area is disturbing, damages the reputation of the falconry sport and to be entirely honest I’d rather see these birds flying free and wild.


 For more on the escaped falconry birds above:

Escaped Falconry Birds – A Peregrine Falcon and American Kestrel

More on Escaped Falconry Birds


Male American Kestrel resting near the shore of the Great Salt Lake

Male American Kestrel resting near the shore of the Great Salt LakeMale American Kestrel resting near the shore of the Great Salt Lake – Nikon D300, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 640, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

I was going to do a post about a Bald Eagle this morning but at the last minute had a change of mind and decided to work up this male American Kestrel that I photographed resting near the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

The causeway to Antelope Island State Park used to be a great place to find and photograph these handsome little falcons but over the past two winters I have not seen nearly as many. That may be because of a decline in the vole population, at least I hope they have moved to more fertile hunting grounds and that it isn’t because the kestrel population in Utah is declining.

This image was taken two years ago this month when the level of the Great Salt Lake was higher than it is now, if I were to photograph a kestrel on this same bush today the background would be that of the mudflats not the beautiful blue water seen in this photo.


Fire in the sky, fog and a female American Kestrel

Fire Rainbow - Circumhorizontal arcFire Rainbow – Circumhorizontal arc or a Fog Bow?

I love to be at my shooting location before the sunrises and yesterday as normal I was there before the sun peeked over the Wasatch Mountain Range and even though there was heavy fog in the valley there was blue sky straight above me. I happened to look up towards where I thought the sun would rise over the mountains and saw what looks to be a fire in the sky. This might be what is called a “Fire Rainbow” (Circumhorizontal arc) or some phenomena caused by me looking up through the fog but whatever it was it was beautiful.

Farmington Bay WMA in a heavy fogFarmington Bay WMA in a heavy fog

This is what it looked like for quite some time yesterday morning at Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area, there was plenty of thick, heavy fog. By the time I took this image the sun had risen over the Wasatch Mountains and I wasn’t seeing anymore “Fire in the Sky”. Just the fog.

Perched female American KestrelPerched female American Kestrel – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

The fog generally dissipates slowly after the sun rises and burns it off and fortunately it did yesterday so I could photograph this little female American Kestrel (here) who is the same kestrel I photographed a few days ago in low light, foggy conditions as the snow fell and she dined on an American Pipit.

It was delightful to photograph the female kestrel in much better light but once again there was an air boat revving its engine not too far away. Boy they are loud. The duck hunters are almost as persistent about being out early in the morning to scoot out into the marshes as I am to be on location bright and early. Okay, maybe it is a tie.

The American Kestrel had just finished devouring a small bird of some sort, I really couldn’t tell what it was because there were only a few small feathers left by the time I spotted the tiny falcon and when we stopped to photographer her.

Female American Kestrel lifting offAmerican Kestrel lifting off – Nikon D300, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

The female American Kestrel sure was beautiful in the soft morning light with hoar frost covered vegetation in the background.

Yesterday I had sparrows, fog, a few distant Bald eagles, frost, snow-covered mountains, the marsh, this American Kestrel and a fire in the sky.

Yeah, I love what I do.


A female American Kestrel and an American Pipit’s demise

Fluffed up female American Kestrel in low lightFluffed up female American Kestrel in low light

Yesterday I spotted a female American Kestrel next to the road at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area  in low light and with snow falling, she was a beauty perched on a rusty hunk of metal.

American Kestrel female and her preyAmerican Kestrel female and her prey

The second time I spotted the female American Kestrel had prey in her talons and when I looked at the prey I could tell it was an American Pipit. The light was still low but I took plenty of images any way. Here the falcon is plucking feathers from the pipit.

Female American kestrel with Pipit feathers on her billFemale American kestrel with Pipit feathers on her bill

The was photographed near a bridge with a boat ramp and some hunters with an air boat where making plenty of noise, I half expected her to take flight with her prey at any second. I could tell that the noise made her nervous.

Female American kestrel and her preyFemale American kestrel and her prey

The noise from the air boat was deafening but the little falcon kept plucking away. At times she would turn and look right at me as if she was saying “Do ya hear that awful noise?”.

Female American Kestrel dropping her preyFemale American Kestrel dropping her prey

After a bit I could see she was struggling to maintain a grasp on her prey and in this frame I caught the American Pipit falling to the snow-covered ground below.

Female American Kestrel after failing to get her preyFemale American Kestrel after failing to get her prey

When the kestrel went down to retrieve her prey she seemed to not be able to find it on her first attempt, this image shows her lifting off from the snow to land on the rusty metal, look at all that snow flying!

Female American Kestrel getting her balance backFemale American Kestrel getting her balance back

In this frame the kestrel was getting her balance back, she looks pretty ferocious to me! The feathers and snow were still flying.

The American Kestrel retrieves her preyThe American Kestrel retrieves her prey

On her second attempt to retrieve her prey the female kestrel grasped it in her bill and flew away from the noise of the air boat and the hunters.

Kestrel hiding with her prey under a concrete slabKestrel hiding with her prey under a concrete slab

She found a concrete slab and hid under it for a bit before she flew off which was interesting behavior.

I normally see American Kestrels with voles as prey but seeing her with the American Pipit once again showed me why American Kestrels used to be called Sparrow Hawks which is why some people probably still use that name.

I wish I would have had better light for this great encounter with the female American Kestrel and her prey, as it was all of the photos in this series were taken at ISO 800 just to have some shutter speed.


Tiny but Tough – Female American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel and a VoleFemale American Kestrel and a Vole – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/500, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

I would describe American Kestrels as tiny but tough, they are North America’s smallest falcon but I don’t think that hinders them at all. American Kestrels are year round residents here in Utah and they have to tolerate some very harsh conditions during our long, cold winters.

When I photographed this female American Kestrel in the winter of 2010 it was bitter cold and as I recall,there was plenty of snow on the ground and the morning fog hung heavy in the air. I didn’t see the kestrel catch the vole but I did see her feed on it rather voraciously.

American Kestrel populations are declining in many locations, even here in Utah there numbers seem to be dropping. For more information about the declining populations and how you can help as a citizen scientist please check out the American Kestrel Partnership, a project of the Peregrine Fund.