Extralimital - pale falcon brings excitement on a wet and gloomy day - 13 Dec 09

Around noon today, Tony Lauro found a large pale falcon hunting over the fields between Sound Avenue, Hulse Landing Road and Route 25A in Calverton near Riverhead (Suffolk Co.). Hugh McGuinness and I beat our way through the Sunday traffic and ever worsening rain to find Tony and a small crowd of Long Island birders looking at the falcon perched on a tall powerline pole. It was a fantastic looking (1st-year?) bird, very pale gray bordering on white. The falcon made a couple spectacular dives in pursuit of Mourning Doves and had apparently been doing this for a while. The tentative identification made by Tony and endorsed initially by all of us was a pale-morph GYR FALCON.

However, some felt that subtle aspects did not quite fit our expectations for a Gyr but more on this later. Our elation was short lived when we got a better chance to study the legs, which had been obscured in most viewsby the tops of the poles or by the bird's tail. Little-by-little we realized that it likely had leather ankle bracelets and this was confirmed as it came into land after one of its sorties. Drat! An escaped falconry bird. Tony Lauro took the disappointing news with grace and most folks soon headed for their cars to escape cold and unrelenting rain. Hugh and I lingered for a bit trying to get photo-documentation of the offending leg ornaments. Over the next 20-30 mins we witnessed a couple more flights including an amazing high speed streak right over the farm buildings were hiding behind. Escape or not, this is one fast bird!

Hugh first raised the possibility of a hybrid, possible a Gyr x Saker cross, rather than a pure Gyr, based on the sleeker profile and noticeably pale head. From on our collective but very limited experience, we also considered the constant activity of the bird to be a bit unusual. Was the bird really big enough to be a Gyr, even a male? Shouldn't it be hunting ducks rather than doves? Obviously these are subject criteria and as has been mentioned before, identification of hybrids (there are several popular combinations) is difficult. More research is clearly needed. The yellow rather than blue feet may also indicate a hybrid assuming that the aging is correct. There are two lessons here, first that large falcon ID is not necessarily straightforward and second, that birds need to be studied carefully; even something as seemingly obvious as the presence of leather straps around both legs may not be revealed immediately.

Anyway, we all enjoyed the bird tremendously and thank Tony for not only getting the word out immediately but for staying on the bird to make sure we all saw it - a true gentleman!

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