“This guy seems to be vibrant and healthy, and he has a good appetite,” says wildlife biologist Chet McGaugh of the gyrfalcon shown sitting in a pile of coot feathers after feeding at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. The Arctic bird and has never been seen in Southern California.x

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Published: 07 February 2012 10:28 PM

· WEBLINK The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gyrfalcon facts

Bird watchers from as far away as San Jose and New Mexico braved gray skies and cold winds near Lake Perris on Tuesday, hoping to be among the lucky ones to catch a glimpse of a gyrfalcon that has taken up residence there. The Arctic animal has never been seen in Southern California, ornithologists said.

The taupe-and-white bird of prey — the world’s largest falcon — was first spotted at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, south of Highway 60, on Jan. 15.

Mark Chappell, a UC Riverside biology professor who snapped numerous photos of the bird that day, said he couldn’t believe his eyes. In fact, the sight was so rare he thought it was an oversized peregrine falcon.

The gyrfalcon “is probably 400 miles farther south than any that’s ever been seen in California,” he said.

“It’s typically seen in Denali (National) Park in Alaska or farther north. A few move south in winter to Montana or the Dakotas, and every few years there’s one in Northern California. But this far south is really, really unusual.”

So unusual that it has attracted throngs of people to the secluded 19,000-acre wildlife area filled with scrubby grasslands and teeming with small mammals and shorebirds — perfect for a bird of prey.

After word went out on the Internet, about 100 people showed up on one day, said Chet McGaugh, a wildlife biologist and ornithologist who keeps Riverside County records for the California Bird Records Committee.

There have been 10 accepted accounts of gyrfalcon sightings in California since 1948, and the farthest south was in Tulare County in the Central Valley, he said.

Jonathan Batkin, director of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M., was in Southern California on business and took a few days off to view the falcon after reading about it on birding websites. After two days, he saw the falcon in flight from about 100 yards away.

“It flushed a bunch of birds off a pond, the birds scattered and it climbed up until I lost it against the hills,” he said. “It’s really powerful and fast.”

Batkin, 58, said he may have to go to Alaska to get a good view of a gyrfalcon (pronounced JER-falcon) in his lifetime. Then he can add it to the hundreds of species already on his “life list,” his bird-watching diary.

At the wildlife area southeast of Moreno Valley, the bird has appeared almost every day over the past three weeks, perching on top of power poles to look for and consume its prey. The falcon has been feeding off the numerous coots that roam the shores of seasonal lakes.

Avid birder Kathy Parker, 60, drove from San Jose to see the bird, one of several species that have migrated farther south than usual this year, including common redpoll finches and snowy owls.

“There are 800-some birds in the United States. You want to try to see as many of those as you can,” she said. “A bird like this, it will probably be the only one you see.”

No one is certain why the bird has strayed so far from the usual gyrfalcon range. Extreme weather or the movements of a food source can push birds beyond their normal territories, but because this is a single falcon, the experts are simply calling it a fluke.

Chappell and McGaugh believe the falcon is a young male, based on its size and the crisp edges of its plumage.

At first, they thought about keeping the find quiet. They were worried that a falconer or breeder might try to catch the bird, even though that would be illegal in California. A gyrfalcon can sell for as much as $15,000, and a white one for as much as $100,000, said Howard King, a Riverside birder.

Chappell and McGaugh inspected the bird from afar to make sure it hadn’t escaped from a falconer, but there were no bands or a radio transmitter that would indicate it was anything other than wild, they said.

Gyrfalcons are known for their speed and strength. They are the size of a raven, can weigh as much as 4 pounds and have a wing span of 4 feet. Among biologists, the gyrfalcon is known as “charismatic megafauna,” the term for widely loved animals such as pandas and polar bears.

McGaugh is hoping the falcon finds its way back home.

“Young birds that get lost on migration are generally out of the gene pool. But this guy seems to be vibrant and healthy, and he has a good appetite,” McGaugh said.

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