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This photo of a what I believe is a dark-phase Gyrfalcon was taken on January 17th, 2010 along County Line Road in Lyman County. At first glance I wasn't even thinking Gyrfalcon, because he looked so dark. I've never seen with such a dark head, face, and plumage like this, where the "mustache stripe" blends right in with the rest of the face. GORGEOUS and very regal looking bird. Taken with Canon 50D, 400 5.6L lens.
Sadly...this may have been this guy's last few hours as a wild and free bird. As I stopped to take photos, I noticed a live pigeon on the side of the road nearby, with a bit of netting or something around him. I couldn't figure out what was going on, thinking he had accidently been caught in some netting. I was planning on getting out and helping the pigeon, but first wanted to get some photos of the Gyrfalcon before he flew away. As I started to take photos, two people came driving up very quickly just over the ridge on the road, and VERY, very animatedly, tried to get me to leave immediately, as they were falconers trying to catch this bird. Hence the pigeon on the side of the road...sigh. I said no, I had just as much right as they did to sit there on the road and that I planned to take more photos, which made them obviously very upset. I stayed for a few minutes and snapped photos, and then I moved on up the road a bit.
I didn't know capturing these guys was even allowed in South Dakota. Guess in this state, if something has a heartbeat, it's fair game to be shot, captured, or otherwise exploited, so I shouldn't have been surprised. To confirm though, I stopped 1/4 mile up the road and made a call (Doug B.) and asked him about it. These guys did indeed have a valid license to capture a Gyrfalcon for use or sale in falconry, which Doug confirmed and which they later showed me. While I was sitting in the car talking to Doug, about 1/4 mile from the Gyrfalcon, the couple pulled up along side and tried to get my attention. I tried to ignore them while I talked to Doug, but rolled my window down when we were done talking. At first, they were just upset that I hadn't driven far enough away, and asked if I could move further up the road. They were actually very nice after they calmed down, and very excited, so much so they wanted me to stay and watch while they captured this guy.
I must say, my mood took an immediate dive when they told me they were falconers and were trying to catch him. There's no way I could stay and watch them catch this beautiful bird...it would have been too sad...so I left. As I first found him and started snapping photos, I was SO thrilled to see such a gorgeous, dark Gyrfalcon...it really had me on a bit of a natural high, especially since he was cooperating and sitting still at close range whileI snapped photos. Now, all I wonder is if the poor thing is sitting captive somewhere, especially since the two falconers told me they already had a white-phase Gyrfalcon back in the hotel they were staying in (an older, captive trained bird). They also had another Gyrfalcon, and 2 Peregrine falcons, back home.
I wonder...is that this guy's fate? Is he going to be the one sitting in some hotel room NEXT winter while his captors chase another bird? While I didn't stay for the capture, the bird was obviously VERY interested in the pigeon, and he stayed put until I left. The pigeon had his eye, and in my heart I think he probably was captured.
Just half an hour before this, Doug and I were sitting on County Line Road, watching another Gyrfalcon pinwheel and rocket through the sky while chasing pheasants. It was simply stunning to watch, and it is that wild nature, that raw speed, is what I always picture when I think of Gyrfalcons. At least that's what I used to think of. Now, at least for a little while, I'll instead probably wonder about this guy's fate. The falconers who were after this bird were nice, and I have no doubt they would take very good care of him, but, if there's ANY bird or species that should be flying free, it's this gorgeous bird.
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