by Eric Wagner
High Country News, November 8, 2010
Travis Booms has a thing for stubbornly aloof animals in remote places, especially those that, like gyrfalcons, thump him on the head when he gets too close. It’s not that he enjoys it when a feathered missile rakes him with its talons. But he can’t help himself. “There’s something about them,” he says. “They draw you in.”
A biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Booms has studied the gyrfalcons of the Yukon Delta for more than ten years. It was work he lucked into. He was studying shorebirds when a buddy mentioned he knew of a place that had gyrfalcons, the world’s largest and least known falcon having fascinated Booms since “the Arctic bug” first bit him when he was a college student.
Booms flew over the area and was blown away by what he saw: an assemblage of extinct volcanoes–the only good gyrfalcon nesting habitat for hundreds of miles–and wetlands suffused with shorebirds, ducks, and the gyrfalcons’ main prey, the rock ptarmigan. With nine active nests in a scant 300 square miles, he found himself among the highest density of gyrfalcons in the world. Admittedly, twenty or so birds in 300 square miles doesn’t sound that dense. But consider: to find that number of birds anywhere else, he would have had to cover almost 3,000 square miles.
This June, I will head up to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and join Booms for part his field season, which goes until the second week of July. The visuals will be pretty stunning, to say nothing of the mosquitoes, all at a site that is a two-hour flight by bush plane from the nearest town. (I’m cadging a flight with refuge staff.) Taking advantage of the long Arctic summer days, Booms and his crew and I will leg it eight or ten miles a day to nests that Booms has followed for almost a decade. We–or more likely, he–will scale cliffs, as he works to describe the gyrfalcon’s spare life, and see how an obligate Arctic species will adapt to the effects of climate change. And as Booms gets closer to bare shelves of rock, and the gyrfalcons see him coming and start to circle overhead, we will brace for impact.
I realize that I’m flitting at the edges of HCN’s geography, but I think that Booms’s research and the landscape in which he researches would make a great story, one that combines natural history and environmental change and quirky characters (self included) in a cool, faraway landscape.