The gyrfalcon is the largest member of the falcon family, with a wingspan of approximately four feet and a weight of over three pounds. This makes it bigger then most of the large hawks that we see in North America such as the red-tailed and rough-legged hawks. You can see from the picture above how large it is compared to a person. The wing shape looks more like that of a buteo, they are broader and blunter then the wings of the other falcons.
The reason why the gyrfalcon is so special is because it is completely an arctic species. These birds are circumpolar which means that they can be found in the tundra and taiga regions of North America, Greenland, Iceland, Europe, and Asia. Like the snowy owl, who shares a much of the same habitat, they do not migrate south during the winter unless there is a shortage of prey. Up at Hawk Ridge the last gyrfalcon counted before this one was back in 2001 and this is the first one that they have banded in 18 years, which should suggest just how significant a moment that this was.
Gyrfalcon mainly prey on ptarmigan, grouse, waterfowl, rough legged hawks, short-eared owls, lemmings, and ground squirrels. They are a strong fliers and typically hunt by chasing their prey, pursuing them in a fast low flight. Often they will finish the chase by flying up and then stooping, diving, down on top of their prey and forcing them to fly into the ground, frequently after they have worn them out with the chase.
They nest on the ledges of cliff faces usually in the borrowed stick nest of a golden eagle or other large bird, often protected from the weather by a depression or overhang. Eggs are laid in March or April, when the temperature is rarely above freezing. The female will often cache food near the nest during the breeding season so that she will have food to sustain her for the 34 to 36 day incubation period. This bird was a hatch year female. It is common to find that birds that do head south are typically young birds who have not yet found a territory of their own.