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The windhover

Wildlife biologist Travis Booms tracks remote Alaska gyrfalcons

 

Name Travis Booms
Occupation Wildlife biologist
Age 33
Abode A cabin with an outhouse and no running water in Fairbanks, Alaska
Coldest temperature ever experienced
-72 degrees F, with -107-degree windchill, at the summit of the Greenland Ice Sheet
Fuel of choice Three king-sized candy bars per day, or five cases total, during one Greenland summer when he logged  700 miles of tundra hiking

When I first meet Travis Booms, he is hunched under the weight of two huge backpacks, which he has humped across more than six miles of dry, open tundra. Hiking on tundra is like hiking on thick memory foam: The ground only grudgingly yields distance. Without breaking stride, Booms says hello to me and excuses himself so he can stagger the last few yards to the lakeshore, where he slips the packs off, collapses onto his back, and calls out, "Honey, I'm hooooome!"

Home for Booms, from the end of June through early July, is the middle of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, among a scatter of extinct volcanoes called the Ingakslugwat Hills. None of them is very tall, but the delta is so flat that The Volcanoes, as the hills are informally known, are the only suitable habitat for Booms' study subject, the gyrfalcon. Lest I get my hopes up, though, Booms warns me that the most I am likely to see of the raptor is a blur at the edge of vision, moving swiftly out of sight.

Alaska's totemic creatures are not usually so shy -- polar bears, caribou and salmon often frolic in front of cameras or hurl themselves upstream for documentaries. The gyrfalcon does none of these things. It lives only in Northern climes and rarely strays down to the Lower 48. It has three color variations, white, gray and dark. Almost all of Alaska's gyrfalcons are gray, and perhaps 40 live in the 300 square miles of The Volcanoes. This may not sound like a lot of gyrfalcons, but consider: You would have to search 3,000 square miles to find so many anywhere else in the world.

Booms, 33, is quiet and predisposed to solitude, with a field biologist's leanness and reserve. He grew up in Wisconsin and was studying Cooper's hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point when, in 1998, he was asked if he wanted to go to Greenland to help with a peregrine falcon project as a last-minute substitute. Six days later he was on a military transport plane. "That summer," he says, "I caught my Arctic Bug." Although he was in the heart of gyrfalcon country, he didn't actually see one until two years later -- in a remote valley, white against gray granite, through a tatting of light snow. Smitten, he came to Bethel, Alaska, in 2002, to volunteer in the refuge. The refuge biologist told him of The Volcanoes and their gyrfalcons, noting that aside from the odd survey, the birds were basically ignored. Booms flew over and was, he says, "blown away." In 2004, he started his Ph.D. at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where he still lives.

Studying gyrfalcons is grueling and often thankless work, and the sheaf of information on them is thin. "That's why I like it," Booms says. For his Ph.D., he worked to fill gaps in the birds' basic biology: whetherthey migrate, whether they nest in the same place each year, what they eat, how hard it is to find them. He spent three or four months at a time hiking prodigious distances across the open tundra, alone save for the occasional moose, visiting nest sites to which he gave colorful names: the Horseshoe (a three-quarter crater), 401K ("because when I first saw it, I thought it looked like a nice place to retire"), Devil's Tower ("you'll see").

Now, as a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Booms has a more urgent focus. The gyrfalcon is uncommon and its population might fluctuate from year to year, but it is generally stable. What concerns Booms is the raptor's long-term viability, especially in the face of climate change. It is too narrowly, perfectly, unfortunately suited to this tundra environment not to be affected by climate perturbations, and the surest way to detect those effects is to count all the birds, year after year. But counting all the gyrfalcons in The Volcanoes is not as simple as just counting all the gyrfalcons in The Volcanoes. You also have to know which one is which.

In any given year, Booms tells me, gyrfalcons will occupy 85 to 100 percent of the suitable territory in The Volcanoes, which sounds like a good thing. But if those gyrfalcons are different gyrfalcons from year to year, that would raise a red flag. We're walking near the Horseshoe, stopping at perches. At each, Booms riffles through tufts of grass, peers into rock crevices, and picks through the gore that litters the ground. He finds a feather and puts it in an envelope, which he tucks in his pocket.

At first, Booms  tried to capture gyrfalcons with nets, nooses and other conventional means. Sweltering in a blind, dogged by mosquitoes, he watched as, hour after hour, the birds ignored his ingenious efforts. He now puts a unique sequence of colored bands on each bird's leg when it's a chick (it's easier to catch then), but that isn't much better. Gyrfalcons have feathered tarsi -- what Booms calls their "pants" -- so even with binoculars the bands are difficult to see, much less read, particularly when the bird is in flight. Now he uses feathers to identify individuals; even small feathers have enough genetic material on them to give a DNA fingerprint.

Much to my delight, I am also adept at finding feathers. I proudly present my discoveries to Booms. He glances at them and says, kindly, "Cool! Ptarmigan!" Another one. "That's a really nice ptarmigan feather." How about this one? "Yeah, that's still ptarmigan."

Clearly, gyrfalcons enjoy gorging on ptarmigan. Depending on the locale, ptarmigan make up to 95 percent of their diet. The perches are littered with clenched feet, denuded skulls, pieces of wing, esophagi (I think), other unidentifiable bits and pieces, and, of course, feathers. After my eighth or ninth attempt, Booms pulls out two gyrfalcon feathers he has found. They look identical to me, but he turns them gently in his fingers and points out subtle differences. One of them is a touch longer, a softer gray, and has some faint speckling near its edge, but the curvature of the feather shaft, or rachis, is the same on each. Booms says the larger one is from a female; the other, her mate. Considering their size and shape, they are likely both the seventh primary, or flight feather. Now, the feathers could not appear more distinct. I'm reminded how fun it is to watch a skilled biologist interpret subtle signs in the field; and Booms is still young.

One morning, we spot a male rough-legged hawk sitting on the small hill adjacent the Horseshoe. Later, we see it doing its courtship display, known as a sky dance. Every day afterwards it is there, swooping and calling, or perched on the hill. Booms wonders why the gyrfalcon pair doesn't seem to care about this trespasser so close to their nest. He worries that their chicks -- they have two this year -- might have died. But soon he hears the pair bringing back food, and he suggests that we pay a visit to see how the chicks are getting along. Although the gesture is couched as a favor to me -- most of my glimpses of gyrfalcons have left something to be desired -- I can tell that he is pleased to have an excuse to visit what he calls "the kids."

The nest in the Horseshoe is midway down the caldera wall, maybe 20 or 30 feet from the top. The basalt is crumbly and sharp and the fecal smell strong as we rappel in. On a ledge, a rather sodden assemblage of sticks and branches spills off a vegetative mat -- an old rough-legged hawk's nest. The two species sometimes trade nesting sites, a source of antipathy between them. Wedged against the rock wall are two chicks. "They're about 34 days old," Booms says. His precision here is hard-won: He had to watch (or fast-forward through) almost 2,700 hours of video from a complete nesting cycle to learn when, exactly, a chick's feathers will poke out of the tufts of down to the extent that they do now.

I secure the chick's wings and then grab its feet. This is more for its safety than my own. Falcons, and especially chicks, don't have the terrifying grips of eagles or hawks. They dispatch their prey with blows: a hard thwack to the back of the head, and then a bite to the neck to sever the spinal cord. But if I don't hold its feet, the flailing chick might put out its own eyes. I heft it. It is surprisingly light and soft. It snaps at me, but doesn't struggle. The force of its glare is almost palpable. Booms points to its bulging crop. If the carnage around the nest is any indication, both chicks are stuffed full of ptarmigan.

"I love this system," Booms said earlier. "There aren't many components, so they're easy to follow and account for." The field of ecology prefers webs of interactions such as these, with predators (the gyrfalcon), prey (the willow ptarmigan), competitors (the rough-legged hawk), and direct or indirect effects (the looming specter of climate change), all clearly defined. As long as a necessary role is played, it doesn't matter who plays it. Such webs are abstract, though; ecology doesn't do so well with specific individuals. I think of this as Booms perches on the edge of the nest and looks at the chicks with obvious affection, which they don't return. They kak and hiss and push up against the cliff. They fear for their own, individual lives. They do not believe in ecology. Neither does their mother, who flies behind us, calling. Booms says we should leave so we don't upset her too much. Maybe 10 or 20 percent of chicks survive their first year. We drop the rest of the way to the ground and walk back to camp. The chicks watch us go.

On my last morning, after Booms has left for Fairbanks and I await the floatplane that will take me to Bethel, I see the rough-legged hawk again near the Horseshoe. Suddenly, the female gyrfalcon shoots out of the crater and sweeps down on the hawk, which gives a startled squawk and flails off its perch. The female swings around, kakking wildly, and the hawk dodges out of the way. Then I see, rising from the ground, the male gyrfalcon. The hawk must see it, too, because its flapping becomes more urgent, and it zigs and zags, trying frantically to get any sort of lift. But the falcon's pace is incredible. It climbs straight up, so fast that the hawk seems still. I jump up and down, screaming, "Go go go go go go!" (I don't realize I'm doing this until I'm teased about it later.) Just before the gyrfalcon reaches it, the hawk splays its talons. But the gyrfalcon doesn't stop, and the two birds smash together, lock talons and corkscrew to the earth. Just before they hit, they release their holds. Then the hawk flaps off over the hill, and the gyrfalcon returns to the crater, and a small flock of scoters natter among themselves on the lake, and an Arctic tern does circuits about the shore, and everything is as it was before, as it will be tomorrow, when no one is here to watch.