Chicks in 18 Gyrfalcon Nests in Northeast Iceland This Summer

Gyrfalcon chicks

Eighteen pairs of gyrfalcons fledged successfully in Northeast Iceland this summer, RÚV reports. According to ornithologist Ólafur K. Nielsen, the gyrfalcon, classified as “species vulnerable,” has been in gradual decline over the past few years, although it is not in crisis.

“Species vulnerable”

Ólafur K. Nielsen, an ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has spent the past 41 summers researching falcon territories in Northeast Iceland. Ólafur recently returned from his annual research trip, where he visited all of the 84 territories to check occupancy and survey the population. Fifty territories were occupied this summer.

The gyrfalcon is classified as “species vulnerable” according to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Its population goes hand to hand with the number of ptarmigans, for the two species are completely intertwined. As Ólafur noted in an interview with this magazine ins 2019, “researching gyrfalcons is impossible without researching ptarmigans and vice versa.”

“The count from this spring shows that the population is in decline, which probably has something to do with a decline in the number of ptarmigan,” Ólafur stated in an interview with RÚV this weekend. “The population rises and falls in rather extreme swings, vacillating by as much as a factor of ten or twenty in the space of a few years.”

A slow decline between years

The gyrfalcon population usually reaches its apex two to three years after the ptarmigan population peaks, which last occurred in ca. 2018 or 2019: “The population within the research area has reached a zenith of 65 pairs, but now we’re seeing somewhere between 45 and 50. It’s been a slow decline over the past few years,” Ólafur commented.

The number of gyrfalcons in the country peaked in 1966 and 1986, with around 65 pairs of falcons occupying territories in Northeast Iceland. This number has declined gradually, along with the ptarmigan population, which could be cause for worry: “The gyrfalcon is on a species vulnerable list,” Ólafur stated. “It’s a small population, comprising perhaps two to three thousand falcons in the entire country. It isn’t in crisis. But its future could be determined by the future of the ptarmigan; as long as we’ve got a healthy number of ptarmigan, we’ll have falcons.”

Despite 50 territories being occupied, gyrfalcons only fledged successfully in 18 of them. “The lion’s share of the pairs were sterile, and some of the pairs who attempted to reproduce were unsuccessful,” Ólafur observed. “These birds were laying eggs very late, which means that they bear fewer eggs. The number of eggs in the nests was low, which is why we’re seeing so few chicks at the end of the summer. But the conditions were auspicious, so those falcons who did reproduce this summer raised their young quite well.”

Cameras to Protect Gyrfalcon Nests

Gyrfalcon chick

Nearly 20 cameras will be set up in falcon nesting areas in North Iceland to ward off would-be egg thieves, RÚV reports. Though gyrfalcons have been a protected species in Iceland since 1950, the Icelandic Gyrfalcon Centre reports that “nest predation” by humans, who steal eggs to sell them abroad, continues to be a problem.

The Icelandic Gyrfalcon Centre started limited camera surveillance of nests last year. The cameras went up later in the season, however, after egg-laying had already started. Now the centre aims to put up the cameras before egg-laying starts in mid-April to ward off even the earliest thieves. Ten of the cameras are on loan from an Austrian falcon enthusiast who wanted to help the centre due to his concern for Iceland’s falcon population. The other eight belong to the Gyrfalcon Centre.

Iceland Review Magazine: A day in the life of a gyrfalcon researcher

The surveillance is run in close collaboration with gyrfalcon specialist Ólafur K. Nielsen, who has been monitoring Iceland’s falcon population since 1981. Ólafur says last year was particularly productive for breeding among the birds, largely thanks to a rise in ptarmigan stocks, the falcon’s main source of food. Indications point to 2019 being good – and additional surveillance certainly won’t do any harm.

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Falco Rusticolus

Gyrfalcon researcher Ólafur Nielsen

“The gyrfalcon’s whole life revolves around the ptarmigan,” ornithologist Ólafur Nielsen tells me as I sit in the back of his pickup truck. We’re navigating a trail through spiky black lava in the northeast on the longest day of the year. At his side is his son and namesake, Ólafur Nielsen Junior, known as Óli to distinguish him from his father. He’s been accompanying his father on his falcon trips since he was 10 years old and can’t imagine a summer without them. In order to get to follow the father-son duo on their trip for a day, I had to apply for a special permit from the Environment Agency of Iceland, months in advance. The purpose of our trip is to visit two or three gyrfalcon nests to mark and measure the nestlings. Even approaching gyrfalcon nests in Iceland is illegal, and only a few researchers and scientists are exempted. Ólafur is one of Iceland’s most notable falcon scholars.

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