My heart was pounding and I was frantically (and visibly) shaking with excitement. I simply could not believe what I was seeing– it was so surreal that even now, three days later, I still can’t wrap my head around it. But let’s back up a bit. Let’s imagine I was having an incredible day birding (and this really is conjecture, because I wasn’t). Maybe I was driving down Goose Creek Road, a hotspot in Churchill, and I was lucky enough to see a Red Phalarope, Little Gulls, maybe a flyover Pomarine Jaeger, and then an American Three-toed Woodpecker flew across the road in front of me. Then maybe I made a stop at Cape Merry, an overlook at the Churchill River mouth, and picked out a Black-legged Kittiwake, and– we’ll just go crazy here (why not?)– a Northern Wheatear frolicking on the coastal bluffs. At this point, on my way back along Launch Road to the Studies Centre, I would happily joke that, given my luck, there should be a Gyrfalcon sitting by the side of the road– ideally perched on that lichen-covered rock right there. And then I might be so crazy as to imagine this bird being cooperative for photos, and sitting there on the lichen-covered rock on the Hudson Bay, just minding its own, hard-core Gyr business while I watched to my heart’s content. And then– no, never mind, I wouldn’t even dare to torture myself with imagining it was a white morph.
And this is the point (after another utterly failed attempt to photograph Pacific Loons) where my heart nearly stopped. In fact, had I eaten a Big Mac that day and clogged up my arteries just a bit more, I’m convinced I would have immediately died of cardiac arrest. Because as I glanced over my left shoulder to take yet another casual gaze at the beautiful, hazy blue Hudson Bay, I happened to notice a large, white falcon, sitting aloof on a lichen-covered rock, in a bed of coastal wildflowers, not twenty feet from the road!
I slammed on the brakes (gently, of course) and frantically cranked the window down. I clumsily stuck my lens out the window to grab a quick record, hoping it would stay put for another split second. Then I took another picture, and another. Then I took the time to adjust my awkward, twisted position behind the wheel, and was amazed to see the falcon still watching me, unamused. I slowly got out of the opposite side of the car, crept around to the back, and gradually made my way across the road, settling on my own lichen-covered rock, leaving just enough room in the frame to allow a flight shot, should it suddenly take flight.
In the meantime, my friend Madi had biked up to the falcon as well, and was watching from just a bit down the road. A few cars had slowly driven by, and a few stopped to watch for a few minutes. Despite all of this, the magnificent, white Gyr held his ground, absolutely unfazed. He was unstoppable, he knew it, and it showed. He sat, lifting his talons to clean the large weapons with his bill, watching flies and mosquitoes pass by, and occasionally sizing up one of the eight, young Bald Eagles circling overhead, or maybe one of the heavy Eiders zipping past. To behold this king of the far north, basking in its slot on the top of the food chain, was a rare and humbling experience.