Friday, January 9, 2009

Watch out bunnies... here we come!

Well, I can definitely count our first hunt a success. We didn't catch anything, but they say the first few times just coming home with your bird on fist is a success ;0).
And actually, we did much more than that.

For our first hunt, I planned to meet up with Chris Fox and Mr. Richard Hoyer. Chris is an incredibly meticulous falconer; he has taught me a tremendous amount in the past couple of weeks, particularly in the realm of weight management.
An aside on weight management--it might just be the most important skill to learn in the sport of falconry, and is easily the most difficult to master... if you're wondering why I keep mentioning monitoring Gaia's weight, this is why. Precise weight management is more or less key to every element of your bird's behavior; a bird at combat weight is in a keen state of alertness, ready to hunt and kill. Hunting is hard work, and dangerous. A falconry bird is not a hunting dog, doing a job for the joy of it and to please his human hunting companion; a hawk hunts for one reason only: survival. When her immediate needs are met, she will always prefer to sit snugly on a high branch, one foot tucked, percolating her last meal and waiting for a convenient snack to mosey along immediately underneath her. As I've mentioned before, birds of prey don't work with and for you because they like you or enjoy your company. They do what suits them and only for as long as it continues to be profitable. An article I read recently described the relationship between handler and hawk like so: "The truth is, she would eat you alive while you begged for mercy, if she thought she could hold you down." Yikes!
But it's true that they return to the glove because they expect that there's something in it for them. They hunt with you because there's inherent profit to it--I provide her with better hunting than she's able to find on her own. She eats better and more consistently by hunting with me, but if ever she decides I'm not holding up my end of the bargain, she's able to sever the relationship at any time with a few quick strokes of her wings. I stack the deck in my favor with careful weight management, ensuring that when we're in the field, she's always keen and ready to hunt.

We can predict and induce this keenness for the hunt by careful weight management; a plump and comfy bird has no reason to hunt. When we enter the field they are lean and hungry. We look for a state of what we call "yarak"--a keen, alert, and aggressive bird who is... well... watching the world like a hawk. Timing this keen state requires the ability to calculate nutritional requirements navigating a complex framework of variables including type of prey, hours until the next hunt, air temperatures, predicted weather patterns, previous calorie requirements, casting pattern, and any expected variables, such as spectators or new dogs. Feeding a falconry hawk is an art and science in and of itself; and with each bird we have to learn a new set of nutritional needs, every bird is an individual. Principles are generally the same, but different birds burn different foods at different rates, and calorie consumption is affected by all the above variables and more.

Overnight lows were hovering close to freezing--they burn more calories in cold weather, a helpful variable this time, as she'd eaten well from the lure the day before and in warmer weather might not have hunted at all the next day. She was about 30g up when I weighed her first thing in the morning, but by the time we got up to Corvallis and had hunted Chris' goshawk, Harlot, she was dead on key at her flying weight.

It's too bad I didn't manage to get any good shots of Chris and his gos, they're neat birds. Goshawks are killing machines--agile forest hawks game enough to tackle any- and everything and with plenty of skill to back up their nerve. Harlot took a cottontail and two packrats in just over a half hour with the help of a beagle posse, one master falconer, one general falconer, and one apprentice.

After Harlot's flight, we took Gaia to a farm field with a convenient row of trees bordered by a hedgerow of wild blackberries for her first training hunt:


One of the major perks of this whole falconry thing is spending my time in places like this.
Setups like this are good bunny habitat, but also an ideal setup for the training of a young falcory bird. In their early flights, we set them up in such a way that we can predict which directions they'll move by the terrain, and so that we can flush prey directly below them. Their first hunts are less about catching things, and more about teaching them the mechanics of hunting over dogs and with a human companion. We want them to make a connection between the actions of the other players and the appearance of game, and to learn to move along from tree to tree, staying in good position to strike when quarry appears beneath them. All that said, the first hunt is considered a solid success if you can just get your bird down out of the tree--plenty of times once they're up high it's a real challenge to get them back down for the first time. Here she is up in her first tree:


She spent much of the time hunting on her own, without paying much attention to what we were doing, which is typical. She had two great flights, crashing down into the brush after some critter or another. She missed both times, but that she even took a shot was pretty great. At one point after we'd worked the brambles in both directions without producing any bunnies she struck out across the field, and I had another quiet moment of panic, envisioning her soaring off into the wild blue yonder without a glance back... but she landed, and far more importantly, she came back a fair distance across the field to the glove.


It was a real honor to hear Mr. Hoyer say that her glove response was better than he'd seen in a passage redtail in quite some time.

After she came back down to the glove, we tossed her back up into the same tree, and threw the bunny lure for her in order to finish the hunt with a net positive experience: exposure to and feeding from a cottontail. We scooped her up, bunny and all, letting her eat a fair amount as we headed back for the truck. All in all, a fantastic success.

We packed up then, had a quick bite of lunch, then hunted Mr. Hoyer's Harris' Hawk, Conchita, over the whole beagle posse, along a set of abandoned train tracks. Following is a series of photos that shows something more of what goes on in a "real" hunt.

Beagle posse, setting out down the tracks, warming up their noses and gearing up for action:



Setting off--Mr. Hoyer and Conchita with 14 y/o Tana in the lead:



Working the briars; the hawk is up high, both brush-beaters working the briars behind and moving any prey forward to flush underneath the bird. The beagles work their way straight through the thick of the brambles, singing all the way:


See if you can spot the happy beagle, doing what beagles do best:


Here we see Mr. Hoyer working a packrat nest. Dusky-footed woodrats are busy little critters; that nest is just about taller than any of us. Often, poking the base of the nest will dispense a bunny along with the packrats.


In this case we got no bunny, but did flush a packrat, who made the poor decision to go up into the next tree, where Conchita was waiting. You might be able to pick out the unfortunate rodent, about two-thirds of the way up the tree on the left-hand side:


Mr. Hoyer assisting with the dispach:


Harris' Hawks are also called "bay-winged hawks" for obvious reasons as seen above. They are the only birds of prey who hunt co-operatively in packs. They are "wolves of the sky," employing very similar hunting tactics, using teams to flush prey for other birds strategically positioned for the strike, or running down prey in pre-arranged relays. The first raptor I ever handled was a Harris' Hawk; I carry a reminder of her on my hide to this day. I have a tremendous admiration for these birds.



I'll leave you with this image, one last sweep before the light failed us.


Onward and upward... more to come!

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