Tim Gallagher

Tim Gallagher

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 12 2000 9:00 PM

Tim Gallagher

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Midnight. The Aktivitetscenter Nordylyset. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Half a dozen Danes slouch at the tiny tables scattered around the dimly lit restaurant-bar, smoking cigarettes and speaking rapidly as an old disco tune bumps along in the background—"Stayin' alive, stayin' alive." Alone in the corner, on a stuffed leather sofa beneath a polar bear skin rug on one wall and a bleached out caribou skull on the other, I nurse a full mug of beer as I write.

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Yes. I made it to Greenland. This is one of those Land-of-the-Midnight-Sun kind of places, so it's as light now as it will be at 1 in the afternoon—which isn't saying much; it's been overcast and drizzly all day. But I'm here, and I've already started seeing nesting falcons. I dropped in on a couple of falcon researchers—Catherine Wightman and Gregg Doney—this afternoon as soon as I got here. They work for the Peregrine Fund each summer, monitoring nesting falcons in a 100-square-mile study area near Kanderlussuaq. This is a rich area for falcons, with 14 pairs of gyrfalcons and probably more than 100 pairs of peregrines. It's not an easy job. They spend weeks at a time hiking overland, camping the entire time as they check each site. But the hard work is ahead in a few weeks when the young peregrines are old enough to band. (They've already banded the gyrfalcons, which nest earlier than peregrines.) The two of them and one or two other teams will band as many of the young as possible before they fledge. The recovery rate from their peregrine banding is incredible—about 7 percent. These are either birds that have been found dead or ones trapped and then rereleased by banders working along the East Coast and Gulf Coast of North America. Many have been recovered in Cuba, Central America, and South America, as far down as Argentina. An adult that nested at one of the local nests was shot last year in Bolivia.

That's one of the interesting differences between peregrines and gyrfalcons. The peregrines are transients, only coming to Greenland for a few short months in summer, then returning to their "real" home in Latin America. The gyrfalcons, in contrast, tough it out year round. They are amazing birds. Far larger and more powerful than peregrines. A peregrine usually must dive from a great height to achieve the speed it needs to overtake and bind to or knock down its prey—usually a bird. But a gyrfalcon can explode powerfully from near ground level, chasing its prey over open country for miles if necessary or high into the sky until it wears it down. And, if it wants to, a gyrfalcon can also plummet meteorlike from on high like a peregrine. They're the perfect Arctic predator. But it's remarkable that even they can survive in such a harsh environment, where even in summer great storms can come up, with 100-plus mph winds blowing snow across the tundra for days, making it impossible to fly, much less hunt. How can they possibly survive? Some researchers speculate that they hunker down in holes in cliffs and go into a semi-dormant state, waiting out the storms. I've never heard of any other raptor doing that, but it makes sense.

Gregg and Catherine took me to three peregrine nests a short distance from Kangerlussuaq—one is on a high cliff behind the airport and another I can see through the window of my room. I could tell when I first met the two researchers, they were not eager to go out and look at some falcon nests. They'd just come back from a couple of weeks in the field and were beat. But after talking with them about falcons for 20 minutes or so, we all got hyper and excited about seeing some peregrines. A few minutes later we were shivering beneath a massive cliff, looking up at a female peregrine falcon sitting on her nest ledge. I suppose I should be thankful that the young peregrines in the Kangerlussuaq area are still too young to band. Otherwise they might want me to climb to the top of the cliff and rappel to the nest.

I'm getting up in a couple of hours—if I ever get to sleep—and I'm having coffee with Gregg and Catherine. Then Bent, the manager of the KISS facility, is picking me up and taking me to the airport, where I'll take a plane north to Ilulissat, then take another plane to Qaarsut, then take a helicopter to Uummannaq, and then maybe … someday … catch up with the falcon research boat before it heads north all the way to Thule.