Last Saturday, January 15th, 2011

3:50 a.m. – the alarm squawked, or was that my husband? He had been up since 2:30 in anticipation of a state annual falconry “Field Meet”  where falconers convene to hunt, share stories, styles, tips and tricks. Included is a banquet (I imagined roast squirrel with pine nuts, a mouse cheese plate, possum stew and rabbit jerky), but it was actually much less sensational… steak, shrimp, and salmon (rabies-free!).

4:45 a.m. – My H, brother and cousin and hawks departed (or so I later found out, as my own self wasn’t up yet)

7:30 a.m. – they arrived at the meet, just in time for a photo shoot and then off to prepare for their first hunt.  Gracie was dressed in her jesses and bells, ready to roll. A woman had graciously offered her property (almost 300 acres) for the falconers to fly their birds.  My H, brother and a falconer family trio headed to the woods and my husband volunteered to fly Gracie first as she seemed to be at a good flight weight.

She was anxious to fly and when released into the trees initially followed well. Eying a squirrel, she chased it into a nest and jumped on it, but the little creature was stubborn and refused to come out (poor sport!). The hunters waited a few minutes to see if the squirrel would budge, but to no avail. It evidently knew what its fate could be (banquet fare?). They decided to walk on to another area, but unfortunately, Gracie’s mood changed and she didn’t follow.

Before I continue with what happened after this point, I should note that my H asked if I’d write this story in the hopes that it may help another falconer. He was concerned that he may not retrieve Gracie, but luckily with team work, perseverance and advice from a master falconer, this story has a happy ending.

10:00 a.m. – He called Gracie, but she flew further away in an ever expanding circle.  Pulling out the lure, which should be a falconer’s most reliable recall (for the women reading this, think new Prada bag), he tried to attract her, but she was indifferent. This wasn’t a good sign and he knew he was in for some trouble (think lost Prada bag).

She continued to “bump” around (flying from one spot to another) and crossed a major road to a neighboring property. They were hesitant to enter someone else’s land (as you should always have permission before doing this), but the neighbor was notified and they jumped the fence. Losing sight of her at this point would almost eliminate the possibility of her retrieval. My brother tried to nudge her back towards them and they worked at this for over an hour.  She was now out of sight, but still within earshot. The situation was getting worse and my H decided to contact his sponsor who connected him with a master falconer who was also on the hunt close by.

tfw-free-flight001

"Bumping" from tree to tree

He offered a few tips for retrieving a reluctant hawk (here is my translation):

  1. Chick-on-a-rope: Hang chick (deceased baby chicken – let’s be clear now) on a rope from tree and dangle it about 2 feet off ground in her sight
  2. The Roman: Drag chick across the ground on a rope behind you (looks better if you’re on a horse)
  3. Military-Style: Establish a search perimeter, one person walks in the dirction of the hawk while the others circle around (remember the “The Fugitive”) and stalks the hawk
  4. Ole’ Faithful: Try the lure again

I guess begging wasn’t an option.

12:00 – Good News! The master falconer found Gracie by the road and alerted my husband.  My H ran to her location and followed her until she led him to the original tree where the squirrel had hidden. He blew his whistle – no response.  He tried “Ole-Faithful” and whipped the lure around with a jolly Ho Ho Ho.  Bingo.  Baby got his bird back.

P.S. When my husband returned home, he found this helpful quote in a recent falconry newsletter: “I have heard many stories of apprentice’s birds being lost.  I can say with confidence that if a good foundation is laid and the bird is at initial flight weight, it would be hard to lose her under even the most difficult of circumstances.  There is a litany of traditional excuses as to why a bird is acting up in the field or why she cannot be flown; “she’s not used to this many people”, “she doesn’t like your hat”, “thermal conditions are bad”, “it’s too windy”, and so on down the list.  But the truth is, she is not at the right weight.  A bird maintained and if flown at the right weight can be flown at any time of day, in any weather conditions and over any size crowd of strangers without the need for excuses.”  – excerpted from an article on weight management by Gary Brewer, author of Buteo and Bushytails.

P.S. I realize this was a longer post than usual and if you’re tired of reading (as I was after I re-read this), get a cup of coffee, clear your mind and look at some hawk photos or alternatively watch hawk tv below:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS2YozkWbTM

walking

Well, yesterday was the big “if you love something set it free moment” where you quickly find out if your hawk will fly the coop or will return to you for some glove love.

My husband went hunting with friends and their hawks and took Gracie along to free fly her for the first time.  They took turns hunting and waited until the end of the day to fly Gracie.  When it starts to get dark, there’s a better chance of retrieving your hawk as they don’t typically fly at night and even if she flew away, she probably wouldn’t go very far.

So, after 7-8 weeks of training, it was time to take the plunge.  At first, when encouraged to fly off of the glove, she held on.  The second time, she flew to the ground and then back to his glove.  The third time ‘s a charm and she finally realized that she could fly to a branch and did.  As the group walked into the woods, she watched them closely and began to follow my H, flying from tree to tree.  You could tell that she had her eye on him the whole time and this was a very good sign.  She flew through the trees, sometimes right by or above you (which is an amazing thing to behold) to perch on his glove, get a snack and then fly to the next tree.

The next step will be hunting with her and I’m excited to hear about their next adventure.

Gracie keeping her eye on my husband...

Gracie is about to fly to the glove

Gracie watching everyone walk through the woods

Looking for squirrels.

The end of a successful day