Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back in the Saddle

I wasn't sure how he'd fly after the layoff last week but he got his groove back quick enough:

We'd chased this flock of starlings back and forth between two shopping centers all morning and he'd had some near misses but hadn't been able to seal the deal. Maybe it was due to the layoff but he seemed to pull up just short on the 4 or 5 slips before this one. The misses must've pissed him off though because, kinda like a karate master doesn't punch the board he's trying to break but aims for a point behind the board, Hayduke plowed right through this one! Nice little flight.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Something a little different...

This past week I had to spend some time in Florida for a work conference so I wasn't able to fly Hayduke but I needed to get my falconry fix some how so I got in touch with some local falconers. These folks went out of their way to show me some truely awesome falconry. The only downside was that my digital camera crapped out just before the trip! All I've got is some rather fuzzy cell phone pics but you'll get the idea.

On Thursday afternoon a second year apprentice named Matt made a 45 minute drive out to the resort I was staying at and picked me up only to drive another hour and a half (closer to two hours I think) to a field he'd gotten a good tip on. Matt is flying a fantastic red-tail in her 2nd year and we hooked up with a few other falconers, one flying an amazing finnish/german gos and another with a young Harris hawk that hadn't been entered yet. The field did not disappoint!

First up was the gos. The area was located in a large bowl and we were working along one of the edges with the gos on a T-perch when a bunny broke beneath us to the left. The gos shot of the T-perch before any of us even knew the rabbit had appeared and made the 30 yards up in the blink of an eye crashing down just behind the bunny. In true gos fashion the gos picked herself up and latched onto the bunny a scant 5 yards later and bunny #1 was in the bag. A great start!

The falconer traded her off and we set off in search of bunny #2 when one of the other falconers noticed a good sized rattlesnake tucked under a bush he was about to walk through! It was a pretty menacing sight and I really wish I had my better camera for the picture but this is all I got (Look closely!):

With the gos back up on the T-perch her falconer climbed a brush covered dirt mound and two rabbits bolted, going opposite ways. It was almost too easy for the gos who wrapped up #2 in 15 yards:

The gos got to feed up on this one but were kicking ourselves later on when we found out just how good this field really was! Not only did we kick up dozens more bunnies but we bumped at least two covies of quail! I would've loved to see the gos kick on the afterburners and fly one of those down!

Anyway, we trudged back to the car to pull out the Harris hawk. Despite having never caught a rabbit before he chased numerous bunnies and small birds with gusto. We ended his session by letting him feed up on a bunny the gos had caught to reinforce that those things taste good. I'm sure he'll end up being a great bird.

Then we pulled out Matt's bruiser. A 1300 gram red-tail that is quite ill intentioned toward rabbits. We wanted to work our way down toward the middle of the bowl where there was a tall telephone tower from which we were sure we'd get some good flights. I don't know how many bunnies we flushed on the way down there but we saw some great flights with the brush crashing that red-tails are known for but nothing more than fur to show for it. The red-tail was actually on the wing when we bumped one of the covies of quail and she actually dipped a wing at them! Quite the gamey bird!

It took a little coaxing but we finally got his bird up on the telephone tower in the center of the bowl and started beating the brush. We'd actually gone quite a ways and the cover was getting to be pretty tall when his bird launched into flight. She came barrelling over our heads about 50 feet up and crashed into the bushes about 50 yards from us snagging her first bunny of the day. From the tower to the bunny must've been at least 300 yards and the cover at that point was about head high. How on earth his bird spotted that rabbit from that distance in that cover I'll never know. I know they have good eye sight but this was just plain ridiculous!

Now usually Matt is satisfied with his one rabbit but there were so many bunnies in this field and the tower was such a good spot that he decided to try for his first ever double. His bird was a little flustered at not being able to take her fill of the first rabbit but eventually made her way back to the tower. It wasn't long before our crew flushed another unlucky bunny and the Red absolutely crushed it into the ground in a fantastic flight right in front of me. Congrats to Matt on his first ever double!!

I have to thank Matt again for going so far out of his way to pick me up, drop me off, and show me some great Florida falconry. That was truely a day to remember!

Saturday was my next chance to sneak some hawking in. For those of you who don't know, peregrine falcons had been on the endangered list for many years and while their numbers have fully recovered due to the efforts of many groups, not least of which were falconers, 2009 was the first year in about 40 that a limited number of States allowed take of wild peregrines. A Florida falconer by the name of Eric was lucky enough to draw a permit for one of these birds in Maryland and has been flying his beautiful Tundra peregrine, Doc, on snipe in his home state of Florida this season. Watching this bird fly was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

I've seen many, many high flying falcons but most of my experience has been in Skytrial settings with the falcons being served racing homing pigeons in pretty controlled situations (as controlled as falconry gets anyway). Up to this point I'd only seen falcons kill wild game twice before in my entire falconry career.

It was an hour and a half drive to where I was supposed to meet Eric at 7:30 in the morning but the falconry I was shown was well worth getting up early for. We drove to the ranch where Eric usually flies and fairly quickly flushed a snipe. Snipe are Eric's favorite quarry, they are fast and maneuverable and he's had many falcons be unable to catch them. He remarked that one of his friends told him that he's convinced that snipe are un-catchable! Apparently Doc didn't get the memo!

We very loosely marked the snipe we had flushed while driving by, Eric parked perhaps 50 yards further away and got Doc ready to go. The hood came off and Doc took in his surroundings before launching off the fist into the sky. Before long he was up at least 500 feet straight above us! We overshot the snipe by a good ways in our attempts to flush and I'm sure Doc had gone up at least another hundred feet by the time it finally flushed. He came sizzling down in a beautiful stoop that caused the snipe to crash into cover for safety. Doc went in right after him and the snipe took to the air again with Doc hot on his tail. The two twisted and turned for another 50 yards before the snipe bailed into the cover again and this time Doc must've lost sight since he started to ring up above us again. Eric and I rushed over to the area where the snipe had put in as Doc gained altitude above us. The snipe flushed again when Doc was about 200 feet overhead and again Doc came screaming out of the sky. The snipe tried to bail but Doc was too close and there was an audible thunk as the two collided on the ground. What a fantastic flight!

That makes 21 snipe for Doc this season! An absolutely incredible feat! It was a special honor to watch what amounts to the Holy Grail of falconry (a wild caught peregrine) fly at such an exceptional level. There wasn't much left of the snipe when Eric picked the birds up but here's a shot I got with my cell and one Eric took with his much nicer camera:

If that wasn't good enough, Eric then pulled out a beautiful little red-necked falcon native to Northern Africa.

What a beautiful bird! It flew at about 150 grams and was one of most maneuverable little birds I've ever seen. Scarred the bejeebers out of numerous sparrows! Unfortunately the little guy has a thing about going into cover after them. The sparrows would bail into cover when the bird was inches from closing the deal and rather than go in after them he'd hover over the spot for a couple seconds and then move on. We didn't catch anything with him but it made me rather excited to fly a merlin this fall.

So ended the morning and my falconry experience in Florida. All in all some absolutely fantastic flying from all the birds I saw and I can't thank all those Florida falconers enough for allowing me to tag along. All the hawking made the hours and hours of work conference just a bit more bearable and the memories will last a lifetime. Falconry rocks.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Hayduke's First Double...kind of.

Saturday was a bust. I only had two slips in as many hours and both of them came in the last 15 minutes of hawking. Just as well though since after the first slip I could tell that his feathers still weren't right after the grease incident. He kind of "rattled" when he flew! The feathers looked okay but were obviously still stiff and it affected his flight. I dunked his tail and wings in dishsoap and rinsed him with 3 glasses of warm water when we got home! Shoulda just done that earlier in the week but for whatever reason I was reluctant. He was a pretty pathetic looking bird after his "bath" but the treatment paid off. He flew much better on Sunday.

Sunday was rather warm (50-ish*F?) and slightly windy (around 10-15mph). I headed out a little after one and ended up being surprised by the number of starlings I found on the ground that late. Our first slip was at a couple starlings feeding in a field next to an embankment. There was about a 6 foot drop from where I was to where they were feeding and Hayduke used the height to his advantage folding into a tight little (albeit short) stoop as he crested the edge of the embankment and dropped onto the starlings. Unfortunately they just managed to squirt out underneath him so we continued on.

A couple missed slips later and we found ourselves at a small shopping center where there always seems to be starlings but where I've never caught one. There was a good group feeding on the ground but it was an awkward slip. While I was contemplating the best approach a single touched down about 20 yards off offering a much better opportunity and Hayduke capitalized. It was one of those odd split seconds where things seem to slow down but from my angle it appeared that the starling was looking straight at Hayduke as he trucked in. I even had time to think, "It sees him, it's gonna bust and he's gonna miss..." but it just stared into the face of death as he plowed right into it! Wahoo!

At this point I didn't react as quickly as I should have. Hayduke has a bad foot with a messed up toe and dull talons (both of which I've been trying to fix for quite awhile) but generally he hangs on to starlings. As I jogged over I could see him trying to get a hold of the struggling bird with his bad foot but it kept slipping off. Just as I reached down to pick him up with his prize the starling made one last twist and popped out of his grasp hightailing it safety. Danggit! Hayduke was none too happy about the loss and gave me an earful about it. I had to make it up to him!

5 minutes later we hit the jackpot. Another shopping center with a couple restaurants and a movie theatre and there seemed to be starlings on the ground everywhere I looked! I found a group that looked more promising than the rest and Hayduke delivered. A couple of birds were sunning themselves up against a curb and he dropped low to the ground and hammered his second starling of the day. When I got to them even his bad foot was wrapped around the starlings neck. He wasn't letting this one go!

My "good" camera is on the fritz so I snapped a quick one with my cell phone:

There had been so many starlings on the ground that I traded him off thinking we might get another for a "true" double but the others must have witnessed their companions demise. I looked for slips on the way home but nothing materialized.

So we caught two, came home with one. One of these days the falconry gods will smile on us and we'll produce a pocketful of starlings, until then, I'm just happy that we're still putting them in the bag on a consitent basis. Kestrels rock.