Bird scientist Bryce Robinson

©Gerrit Vyn

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Science on the Edge

A scientist travels to Alaska to follow the world’s largest, most mysterious falcon

High on a cliff in the Alaskan tundra, a baby gyrfalcon was about to die. The bird’s nest was collapsing, which would send the chick tumbling hundreds of feet below. Luckily, its mother gently picked up the chick in her beak and flew it to a safe place just in time.

Bird researcher Bryce Robinson didn’t see this happen in person. But his camera filmed it in 2015. It was the first time this sort of behavior was recorded in a bird species. “It’s unique and exciting,” Robinson says. At the time, he was studying bird biology at Boise State University in Idaho.

Gyrfalcons are the largest falcon species on the planet. Adults have wingspans of 4 feet. They live in the tundra regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.

High on a cliff on the Alaskan tundra, a baby gyrfalcon was about to die. The bird's nest was collapsing. This would send the chick tumbling hundreds of feet below. Luckily, its mother gently picked up the chick in her beak. She flew it to a safe place. It happened just in time.

Bird researcher Bryce Robinson didn't see this happen in person. But his camera filmed it in 2015. It was the first time this sort of behavior was recorded in a bird species. "It's unique and exciting," Robinson says. At the time, he was studying bird biology at Boise State University in Idaho. 

Gyrfalcons are the largest falcon species on the planet. Adults have wingspans of 4 feet. They live in the tundra regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.

The birds are fierce, speedy predators. With their excellent eyesight, they can spot movement on the ground while soaring 1,500 feet in the sky.

Despite this, gyrfalcons are at risk. Warming climate patterns have made it harder for the birds to find food and have chicks. Their future is uncertain. And because they’re top predators, studying the birds gives clues about the overall health of the ecosystem. That’s why scientists like Robinson made the difficult trip to the birds’ habitat to learn more about them.

The birds are fierce, speedy predators. They have excellent eyesight. They can spot movement on the ground, even while they soar 1,500 feet in the sky.

Despite this, gyrfalcons are at risk. Warming climate patterns have made it harder for the birds to find food. It's also made it harder for them to have chicks. Their future is uncertain. But studying the birds gives clues about the overall health of the ecosystem. That's because they're top predators. Robinson is a scientist. He made the difficult trip to the birds' habitat. He wanted to learn more about them.

©Gerrit Vyn

A motion-triggered camera snapped a picture of these two gyrfalcon hatchlings in Alaska.

Arctic Adventure

In the summer of 2015, Robinson went to Nome, Alaska, to start his journey to the falcons’ habitat. From Nome, he drove 70 miles down a remote dirt road. Then he hiked for hours with a heavy pack full of climbing, camping, and camera gear. The rocks and shrubs on the ground made hiking feel “like walking on a field of half-deflated basketballs,” he says.

Gyrfalcons lay their eggs on steep cliffs. No person had ever been near them. So Robinson climbed up to each nest to install a camera. He programmed each camera to snap pictures when any movement was detected.

Over one summer, the cameras collected more than 750,000 photos. Robinson has been studying them one by one. 

In the summer of 2015, Robinson went to Nome, Alaska. From there he would journey to the falcon's habitat. From Nome, he drove 70 miles down a remote dirt road. Then he hiked for hours with a heavy pack. It was full of climbing, camping, and camera gear. Rocks and shrubs on the ground made hiking feel "like walking on a field of half-deflated basketballs," he says.

Gyrfalcons lay their eggs on steep cliffs. No person had ever been near them. So Robinson climbed up to each nest. That was so he could install a camera. He programmed each camera to snap pictures. This would happen when any movement was detected.

Over one summer, the cameras collected more than 750,000 photos. Robinson has been studying them one by one.

Patricio Robles Gil / Npl / Minden Pictures

Gyrfalcons are the world’s largest falcon. They’re cunning hunters.

Wild Weather 

So far, the images have taught scientists a number of things about gyrfalcons. For example, scientists know more about where the birds nest, how they behave, and what they eat.

In one nest, the cameras captured an unusual sight: a mother gyrfalcon feeding her baby birds a crested auklet, a small seabird. These birds usually live about 60 miles away on the coast. The presence of a seabird so far inland could be a sign of how the ecosystem might change in response to shifts in climate. 

So far, the images have taught scientists a number of things about gyrfalcons. For example, scientists know more about where the birds nest. They also know more about how they behave. And what the birds eat.

In one nest, the cameras captured an unusual sight. One camera photographed a mother gyrfalcon feeding her baby birds a crested auklet. This is a small seabird. These birds usually live about 60 miles away on the coast. They are not normally this far inland. This  could be a sign of how the ecosystem might change in response to shifts in climate.

Flying On

Though Robinson has finished his research project, his work inspired other scientists to pick up where he left off. This coming summer, two graduate students will head to Alaska to find more gyrfalcon nests. 

Robinson is confident that their work will be rewarding. “Gyrfalcons are one of the coolest birds to study because they nest in such a mysterious place,” he says.

Robinson finished his research project. But his work inspired other scientists to pick up where he left off. This coming summer, two graduate students will head to Alaska to find more gyrfalcon nests.

Robinson is confident that their work will be rewarding. "Gyrfalcons are one of the coolest birds to study because they nest in such a mysterious place," he says.

1. Work with a partner. Together, discuss what you want to find out about making a bird nest that can hold 3 weighted eggs.

2. Put 3 marbles into each plastic egg.

3. Draw a design for your bird’s nest. Estimate how many of each item you think you will use. Write it down.

4. Head outside.* Use a plastic bag to collect your items. Make a list of what you gathered.

5. Assemble your bird’s nest using only the items you found. You cannot use glue or tape.

6. Check that your nest is strong enough to support the eggs. Place 3 eggs into the nest. Record what happens using a video recorder or pencil and paper.

*If you can’t go outside, use items provided by your teacher.

1. Work with a partner. Together, discuss what you want to find out about making a bird nest that can hold 3 weighted eggs.

2. Put 3 marbles into each plastic egg.

3. Draw a design for your bird’s nest. Estimate how many of each item you think you will use. Write it down.

4. Head outside.* Use a plastic bag to collect your items. Make a list of what you gathered.

5. Assemble your bird’s nest using only the items you found. You cannot use glue or tape.

6. Check that your nest is strong enough to support the eggs. Place 3 eggs into the nest. Record what happens using a video recorder or pencil and paper.

*If you can’t go outside, use items provided by your teacher.

Make a 2-minute video describing your nest. Explain your building process and your results. Is there anything you would change?

Make a 2-minute video describing your nest. Explain your building process and your results. Is there anything you would change?

1. Did you stick to your original design? Why or why not?

2. Do you think your nest could hold 4 eggs? Explain, using your results.

3. Watch a video made by another set of partners. Was their work similar to or different from yours? If different, how?

4. What challenges do birds face when they build real nests?

1. Did you stick to your original design? Why or why not?

2. Do you think your nest could hold 4 eggs? Explain, using your results.

3. Watch a video made by another set of partners. Was their work similar to or different from yours? If different, how?

4. What challenges do birds face when they build real nests?

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