Tag Archives: Gyrfalcon

Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. Now in my collection.

In his own vastly expanded version of “Notes on the Birds of Nottinghamshire”, published in 1907, and now housed in the local collection of Mansfield Library, author Joseph Whitaker has added, for the most part in pencil, his own notes and additions. In some cases, he has pasted newspaper clippingts onto the pages. At one particular point, towards the end of the book, he has added the following handwritten note, misspellings and all:

“Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. We were beating a plantation on Clipstone Road near the Red House Farm it was misty + this falcon flew low over the trees + was shot by him.
I missed this bird out when this book was written. Now in my collection”.

Sceptics might say, of course, that Joseph Whitaker was mistaken in his identification of the bird and that it was, quite simply, not a definite Gyrfalcon. This is, however, a rather unlikely scenario. Joseph Whitaker was familiar with many, many different kinds of raptor. If anything, he had probably seen more species within the county than the majority of present-day birdwatchers. And don’t forget. Mr Shelton shot it. They were identifying a corpse, not a distant dot disappearing into a dismal sky:

Gyrfalcon_e0 zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
In any case a Gyrfalcon would have been easily identifiable on size alone. It is a falcon as big as a Common Buzzard And if Whitaker’s bird was a white phase individual, it would have been totally unmistakeable:

faucon-gerfaut-vol-tm3 zzzzzzz

There are only two birds of this size which are completely white, namely Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl. The latter is not exactly difficult to identify:

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Gyrfalcons exist in two different colour morphs and it would, admittedly, have been more difficult to identify a dark morph bird:

dark

The issue of size would still have been there, of course. Gyrfalcons of both white and dark morphs are huge birds. Furthermore, even dark phase Gyrfalcons are very distinctive birds, especially when viewed as dead specimens.

Dark morph birds may just be an academic problem anyway. According to at least one ornithological authority, namely Fisher in 1967, the vast majority of Gyrfalcons seen in England during the Victorian era were, in actual fact, white phase birds, with apparently only one dark morph individual recorded nationally during the last third of the 19th century.

And in Whitaker’s day, of course, there was no need to worry about the presence of escaped foreign falcons from Australia, or exotic, artificially inseminated hybrids produced by Baron Frankenstein the Falconer. It would have been very difficult to misidentify one of these charismatic killers:

32_GYRFALCON stuffed zzzzzz

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what Mr Shelton shot, if it were not a Gyrfalcon. We also know that the bird went into Joseph Whitaker’s collection. This fact in itself would have served as some kind of checking mechanism, since the specimen would have been mounted and then inspected by the continuous parade of visitors to Whitaker’s house in Rainworth. These would have included a large number of nationally reputable ornithologists and it would have been impossible for a man like Joseph Whitaker to have shown them such an important county specimen without their quickly mentioning the fact had the bird be misidentified.

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Why then do we not have the Gyrfalcon now? Again, answers are not difficult to find. The bird may have been sold privately, either before or after Whitaker’s death. Equally it was common practice, when the owner of a great collection died, for selected individual birds to be passed onto close friends, before the collection as a whole was sold, usually at a public auction. It is also conceivable that the specimen may have been stolen after Whitaker’s death.

On the death of a great collector, it was a frequent occurrence that the beneficiaries of the estate had little or no expert knowledge of the worth or importance of certain individual stuffed birds. These vulnerable specimens were then liable to disappear between the death of the collector and the public disposal of the collection. This has certainly happened to a number of other birds which are known to have been in Whitaker’s possession but have now disappeared, presumably between his death and the acquisition of his collection on behalf of the Mansfield Museum.
In any case, why should we automatically cast doubt on Whitaker’s handwritten note? What clearer message can the great man have hurled forward into the future, than the one we now have? He offers us the word of an honest man.

You might be lucky enough one day to see a Gyrfalcon in this country. I never have. But I console myself by watching the Peregrine Falcons which have nested for years in the middle of the City of Nottingham:

the urban peregrine zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

They can be seen on the Newton and Arkwright Building of Nottingham Trent University on South Sherwood Street, Nottingham.

In this aerial view, the Fire Station is coloured orange as it is the most well known building in this part of the city for the majority of people. (No, it’s not on fire):

fire station zzzzzzzzz

Look at the street to the right of the Fire Station and follow it towards the top of the photo. The Newton and Arkwright Building is the enormous white building on the right as you walk up the slight slope towards the Theatre Royal. It is a very distinctive Third Reich type of 1930s architecture.

If you go there, take some binoculars if you have any. Look at the right side of the building. The nest is on a wide lip that runs the whole length of the building, just below a row of largish windows. This street map might help. Look for the orange arrow:

map of south shwood st

If you wish, you can watch them on a live webcam. The birds are present pretty much all they year round. Theoretically, they should not be here in the winter, but somehow they seem quite frequently drawn back, a little bit like teenagers returning to the Bank of Dad. At the moment, they should be feeding their young. In the past, there have been catastrophes with this, as is always the case with Mother Nature, but if all goes well, it can be a wonderfully blood spattered spectacle.

But back to Gyrfalcons.
Here are a pair of them, filmed by “thegowser1” at 78 degrees north between Svalbard and Greenland:


More typical for a twitcher in north west Europe would be these two films of a bird which had strayed to  Champtocé-sur-Loire, in Maine-et-Loire, France. The two films come from Alain Fossé, and show a raptor doing what they spend most of their time doing…absolutely nothing!. High calorie meals of meat mean you only need move around infrequently (or so I tell my wife).

These are much more typical  of a March day near Mansfield than an icebreaker near the North Pole!

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A child minding dilemma

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Saturday, June 11, 1988

I walk back home from the local newsagents, my eyes peeled as always for the odd brilliant white Gyrfalcon, soaring over the City Hospital. But, as always, without any luck.

zzzz gyr

Suddenly, a big brown raptor comes into sight, making its way purposefully along the Ring Road, flying along the line of the valley, heading roughly eastwards.

surf marsh harrier

At first, because of the time of year, I presume that it must be an Osprey, although I can’t really imagine why, because it doesn’t look anything like an Osprey and it isn’t carrying a fish.

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For a start, it has an obviously pale, or even white head. It is this latter feature that makes me realise that it is a Marsh Harrier.

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Then there is an agonising decision to face. Do I run a home like the clappers, and then the bird will become eligible to be included in my “Seen from the Garden List”? If it were left to me, there would be no contest, but the problem is that I have my Baby Daughter, aged two, asleep in my arms. Mum will be a bit displeased if I plonk her down on the pavement and leave her, just so that I can see the same bird a second time, only thirty seconds after I have seen it for the first time, although, granted, from a different place. So, I forget the idea of momentarily hanging Baby Daughter on somebody’s front fence, and walk maturely on, trying to persuade myself that moral ticks count just as much as real ones do. It’s a lot more difficult to make these decisions when you’ve only just moved house and your Garden List is not yet in double figures.

Twenty six years later and I still haven’t seen an enormous number of raptors from my back garden. Sparrowhawks are probably the commonest.

zzzzz sparrow

In nearly thirty years, there has only ever been one Kestrel.

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I have seen a good number of Common Buzzards.

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I have also seen Peregrines on several occasions, but this is because the latter now nest on the top of the Newton Building in South Sherwood Street in the middle of the City.

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The best bird of all has been Red Kite, which is a good bird to see out in the countryside of wildest Nottinghamshire, never mind in a suburb of its largest conurbation. 

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Birds of prey, or raptors, are notoriously difficult to identify, and fleeting glimpses, often without binoculars, quite often make you feel that you may have seen a particular species, but, alas, not well enough, or with enough certainty, to add it to your Garden List. In this category would be Hobby, Goshawk and Rough-Legged Buzzard.

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Filed under Nottingham, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature