Bird world puzzled by invasion of gyrfalcons

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The Independent Online

An influx of spectacular white falcons from Greenland is puzzling British bird experts. Gyrfalcons, with a wing span of four feet, are rare winter visitors to Britain and Ireland but more have been recorded recently than in any year for almost a century.

An influx of spectacular white falcons from Greenland is puzzling British bird experts. Gyrfalcons, with a wing span of four feet, are rare winter visitors to Britain and Ireland but more have been recorded recently than in any year for almost a century.

"Why so many should suddenly turn up is a mystery," Steve Gantlett, editor of Birding World, said yesterday. "It's also interesting that some appeared in extreme southern rather than the more obvious far-northern regions."

One bird spent three weeks ranging along 80 miles of Cornwall's coast. During its stay another appeared at Hordle, near New Milton, Hampshire, and another spent a week near Kilrush in County Clare, Ireland. Earlier in the year a gyrfalcon was in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, for a month.

Mr Gantlett, also co-author of Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland, felt there might be a link with end-of-winter movements of kittiwakes - gulls which are among Britain's commonest seabirds. "Many of our kittiwakes spend the winter off Greenland, where they could well be hunted by the falcons," he said. "When the kittiwakes head back across the Atlantic for the nesting season, some falcons perhaps follow them." This, he speculated, could lead to tired falcons landing on fishing boats and other vessels. Their destinations could influence where the birds subsequently appeared in Britain and Ireland.

The other recently sighted birds were much farther north. Four were in the Shetlands and Orkneys and two in the Outer Hebrides. Another was found exhausted on Foinaven oil platform, west of Shetland. After recovering at a wildlife hospital it was released near Braemar, in the Highlands.

Chris Mead, consultant to the British Trust for Ornithology, said the arrivals could be linked to food depletion in the winter and increased territoriality of adults. "As a result non-territorial, mostly young, birds are forced out and try to find food further south."

Previously, about three gyrfalcons a year were sighted. The latest influx is the biggest since 1909, when 27 were recorded in Britain and Ireland.

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