The Arctic is warming up
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Biologists consider gyrfalcons – the only predators of these places – one of the most vulnerable species in the region.
The gyrfalcon is the world’s largest falcon and one of the fastest. On long flights, it can reach speeds of up to 80 mph (approximately 130 km / h). With a weight of just over 1 kg (for males) and 2 kg (for females), the gyrfalcon can hunt prey that exceeds its mass by 2 times. The wingspan of the gyrfalcon is about 130 cm. This bird does not soar, but rushes rapidly forward.
An endangered species.
The gyrfalcon is the only Arctic predator that does not need to go south for the winter. He remains in the north, as he can find food in such harsh conditions. “Any organism that can live in such a hostile environment is worthy of respect,” says Travis Booms, a predator biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
But recently, gyrfalcons have to face a serious problem. The fact is that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Biologists consider gyrfalcons to be one of the most vulnerable species in the region, as they are specialized for survival in cold climates.
The effect of warming.
When the ambient temperature rises, many species shift their habitat towards the colder poles. Gyrfalcons cannot move further north, as there are no nesting sites there. Although they are not currently considered an endangered species, recent research in Alaska suggests that there is cause for concern.
“The population is still stable. It may be shrinking, but it’s not quite clear how much, ” Booms says.
He participated in a long-term study on the Seward Peninsula, home to 70 to 80 breeding pairs of gyrfalcons. This represents about one-tenth of the state’s total population. In his research, the scientist tries to understand how birds adapt to climate change.
Photographer Kili Yuyang accompanied researchers visiting gyrfalcon nesting sites on the peninsula in June 2019. His photographs provide an opportunity to see these unique birds in their natural habitat, where they are very difficult to find and observe. This project aims to draw people not only to the beauty of the birds and their role as sanitation workers in the Arctic, but also to the importance of research.
Gyrfalcons and golden eagles compete for cliff nesting sites across vast swathes of the Arctic.
The researchers ‘ reports include gyrfalcon chickens, which are about 25 days old. They are already at an age when scientists can ring them so that they can be identified in the future. The researchers must walk several kilometers and climb down the rocks to do this work.
“To be honest, we still know so little about gyrfalcons, including how they manage to survive the harsh winter,” says one of the expedition members. Photographer Yuyang says that he wants to give all people the opportunity to see these birds in their natural habitat and understand how beautiful they are.
The Seward Peninsula is an ideal place to explore gyrfalcons, as it has a reliable road network, which is a rarity in the Arctic. They extend from the small town of Nome and pass within walking distance of several gyrfalcon nesting sites. The nests are located high on rocky cliffs overlooking vast uninhabited areas of tundra.
Since 2014, the Peregrine Fund, an organization dedicated to the conservation and research of birds of prey, has been studying the Peninsula’s gyrfalcons in tandem with Booms and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Each summer, a team of researchers visits about 20 gyrfalcon nesting sites on the peninsula in three different periods:
in May, when the eggs are laid; in June, when the chicks are about 25 days old; in mid-July, when the chicks have already fledged.
It’s quite a difficult job. Every day it takes several hours to move on foot through difficult terrain, climb rocks. An untrained person will not be able to withstand such a load.
The June tour period, when researchers take blood samples from the chicks and put rings on their legs, is particularly difficult. The parents of the chicks are not at all happy about the visits of people.
“It’s very scary to go down the cliff to the nest, when these birds of impressive size swoop down on you and constantly scream,” says Devin Johnson, a doctor at the University of Alaska.
The significance of the researchers ‘ work.
The data collected during these field visits demonstrates how gyrfalcons respond to environmental changes in the area.
Changes that can significantly affect the well-being of gyrfalcons include intense spring storms that can kill chicks, slow the growth of new shrubs and small trees in the tundra, which give their prey more places to hide. Scientists have also begun taking predator blood for diseases such as avian malaria and West Nile virus, to which gyrfalcons are probably more vulnerable than other predators.
“If there is a change in the environment, it will show up in the biology of the gyrfalcons,” says David Henderson, who directs the research program.
The diet of birds.
Studying the diet of gyrfalcons is an important part of the project, because the birds mainly hunt animals that, like them, are adapted to life in the cold north. Potential victims of gyrfalcons are becoming increasingly vulnerable in the context of a warming Arctic.
Young birds high up in a rocky nest devour the prey delivered by their mother. A camera trap set up by birdwatchers helps them keep an eye on the chicks and see what they are eating.
Motion-activated cameras, which the researchers install in the nests in May each year, capture all of the predator’s prey on film. Since 2014, the project has collected more than four million photos of the production. Based on these materials, scientists concluded that birds eat partridges, ground squirrels, lemmings and songbirds. “We currently have more photos of gyrfalcon food than anyone else in the world,” says Henderson.
Studies show that the diet of falcons is more diverse than previously thought. But has the predator diet changed due to climate conditions? “This is what we are studying. We really need a long-term data set to know for sure, ” Johnson says.
Although gyrfalcon populations are considered stable worldwide, scientists believe that there are some signs that the number of these birds is declining locally in western Alaska and the Yukon territory. The decline in numbers may be partly due to difficulties in finding prey, as well as intense spring storms. The researchers believe that it is still too early to draw final conclusions.
It should also be taken into account that a small number of falcons are caught every year for use in falconry, which people train predators.
The importance of birds for local residents.
Gyrfalcons are not only valuable hunters, but also spiritual guides for many indigenous people of the Arctic, including Yuyang, because his ancestors are Nanai-the indigenous inhabitants of the Siberian region.
“Some of the most powerful spiritual helpers are falcons, including gyrfalcons,” he says.
He explains that he wants to help people understand that the Arctic is not just an icy, lifeless space.
“This is the last vast desert with such an incredibly interesting and rich life. It is also one of the last territories on the planet where the indigenous culture is so well preserved, ” says Yuyang.