Monitoring Gyrfalcon Nesting in Norway

Adult female Gyrfalcon exhibiting nest defense over her nest south of Alta, Norway.
Dan Varland photo.

On June 3, 2022 good friend and long-time Coastal Raptors volunteer Dave Murnen and I departed Washington for an adventure that took us first to Iceland for several days of sightseeing, then on to Norway for fieldwork with Gyrfalcons. There we joined Kenneth Johansen and others to monitor Gyrfalcon nesting. Many thanks to Kenneth for hosting us at his home during our visit!

Dave Murnen and me at the airport in SeaTac, Washington on June 3.
We flew first to Iceland where we spent a few days sightseeing before continuing on to Norway.

Birding Highlights – Iceland

Atlantic Puffins. Dan Varland photo.
Black-legged Kittiwakes. Dan Varland photo.

On June 8 we flew to Alta, a city of 21,000 hearty souls. Alta lies 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a city well within the nesting range of the Gyrfalcon.

Gyrfalcons nest in arctic and subarctic regions around the world. Some migrate south for winter. On the North American continent migrant wintering areas include southern Canada and the northern US.

Some Gyrfalcons winter in Washington. Since 1995, Coastal Raptors has banded eight on the Washington coast. Map source: Birds of the World by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Gyrfalcon nest site monitoring project was initiated in 1987 by Kenneth Johansen and Arve Oestlyngen…when they were teenagers! Each year in April and early May they and sometimes others in their raptor monitoring group go by snowmobile to known Gyrfalcon nesting territories with the goal of determining nest site occupancy. When they see an incubating adult on a nest, they plan a return trip in June to collect data on nesting success. The June site visit includes accessing the nests and banding the young before they reach fledging age.

Kenneth Johansen (left) and Arve Oestlyngen. Kenneth and Arve began the Gyrfalcon nesting research project as teenagers. Arve was only able to join us in the field for one day due to other commitments. Dan Varland photo.
Kenneth Johansen and me. Kenneth graciously hosted Dave and me during our stay. Kenneth and I got to know each other through attending Raptor Research Foundation conferences in the US. Dave Murnen photo.
Field team, left to right: Kenneth Johansen, Olaf Opgard, Dave Murnen, yours truly, and Bjornulf Hakenrud.
Marianne Kjeldsberg, also a member of our team, took the group photo.

We visited five Gyrfalcon nests altogether. To access these remote nesting locations, our days started with 1-2 hours of driving followed by 2-7 miles of hiking.

Preparing for the hike
Getting there
Climber Bjornulf accesses a nest by rappelling to the site from above. The young Gyrfalcons were then transferred to the ground in a sack for banding and, for some, blood sampling.
The bands. In European countries as well as in Africa, bands are known as rings.
Yours truly posing with a young Gyrfalcon. The adult female flew overhead while we processed the birds. She’s featured at the top of this post!
Dave with one of the falcons. This nest included four nestlings, each about 15 days of age.
We collected blood samples from nestlings at two of the nests – just one drop on filter paper was all that was needed. The samples will be sent to the US and tested for blood parasites for a collaborative project involving Cornell University, The Peregrine Fund and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Dave and I had the experience of a lifetime. Many thanks to our Norwegian friends: Kenneth, Arve, Bjornulf, Olaf, Marianne and Olav. They kept us safe and shared with us the world of the Gyrfalcon in Norway.

The next generation: Kenneth’s son Olav also joined us for two days in the field.

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