The Fresh Start - My First Season Hunting
The last article I wrote about falconry and me described my less than perfect beginnings in the world of birds of prey, acquiring my first bird Eira, her death and my plans going forward into the hunting side of falconry.
In this article I will be writing about an unexpected bird that came into my life a few weeks after I wrote that original piece.
Following the death of my falcon Eira I had decided to start pursuing falconry in its most traditional form; hunting quarry with a trained bird of prey. As my background had been in display work with birds I knew I needed to go back to basics to learn more about training and hunting with a bird. So I started re-reading my falconry books, learning about quarry and fieldcraft, and I put feelers out to find more permissions (land to fly and hunt on) as well as a mentor to show me the ropes.
I wasn’t expecting to have my own bird again until the Summer of 2020 at the earliest (when this years chicks would be bred), but during the process of looking for a mentor I was offered an opportunity by Charlie Heap who runs the National Centre of Birds of Prey where I volunteer.
He offered to loan me one of his harris hawks for the hunting season (October through to the end of January) to see how I found hunting and working with a harris hawk. After discussing with other more experienced falconers than myself, and having a chat with Charlie at the centre I decided to accept the offer. So on the 12th of October 2019, Bracken entered my world.
A couple of things to keep in mind reading the following:
- I already have experience keeping and flying birds, as well as a good network of support. If I didn't I would never have agreed to taking Bracken on. Please, if you have no experience with a bird of prey and someone randomly offers one to you please do not accept!
- Bracken came to me as a fully trained, seasoned hunting bird. So what you read below about me getting him flying and hunting isn't nearly as involved as what it would be like training a fresh young bird from scratch, so please don't think its as easy a task as it sounds.
Preparations and Reservations
I won't lie, many doubts crept into my head in the build up to Bracken arriving. I had never gotten on well with harris hawks. My previous experience with them hadn't been brilliant. I had been footed (when a bird grabs you with their feet and talons), had them jump at my face and generally dealt with some rather angry, complicated, and not brilliantly trained hawks. There was also the fact that I was still looking for a mentor and permissions and hadn't yet been out hunting with a bird.
Had I made the right decision? Was I jumping the gun? What if it all went wrong? I'd asked these questions to myself and other falconers - and received reassurances that I would be ok and that I wasn't going into it completely unaware of what was required. I already had experience with birds through the work I'd done with Eira. I knew my husbandry, understood weight management and also had the added safety net that if I was struggling or it wasn't working out I could return Bracken back to the centre at any time. So I put on my big girl pants, took Bracken on and ended up having what turned out to be the most amazing three and a half months with him.
So who is Bracken? Bracken is a wonderful, old male harris hawk. He was 20 years old when I took him on. He was an entered bird (meaning he had already successfully hunted in his past) and had spent the last 7 years of his life at the National Centre for Birds of Prey doing a cracking job being a foster dad to birds at the centre, as well as flying in the public demonstrations there. So I knew taking him on he was an experienced bird and knew what he was doing. I was going to learn a lot from the old lad, known affectionately as 'Box Head' to the centre staff, due to his squarish looking head.
From the moment I got him home, took him out of the travel box and put him out in his perch to get used to his new surroundings he was so calm. He took everything in his stride, grumbled at me gently whilst I was putting him on his perch and within minutes he was sat preening himself. My heart was already softening. Maybe having a harris for a little while wouldn't be as scary as I had first thought?
Our first few days were just spent getting used to each other and our daily routine. Then we moved on to basic flying work together and began to build his fitness up (he had been in his aviary before he came to me so was fat as butter). Our first free flight happened on my birthday. He did some lovely following on with me - flying along from tree to tree, following in the direction I was walking. So I had him free flying, carried on with the following on to build up his fitness, and so I knew we were ready to move on to the next stage...hunting.
Into to field...
If I'm honest, my expectations for the season weren't huge. I had no experience hunting so my thoughts were that even if we only caught one thing together I'd be over the moon. The first few times I took him out on my own we didn't see much. I was still finding my feet and there were just a few half hearted attempts on his part to chase anything.
I was invited to join some falconers on a field meet. It was first one and I took Bracken with me to meet a lovely group of lads. Our plan for the day was some rabbit hawking, flushed by ferrets. The cover was still high and the rabbits were sticking to it, so no one was successful that day, but it wasn't a wasted opportunity. I learnt about aspects of fieldcraft, field meets and falconry in general from the falconers there. I also learnt that Bracken would work well over ferrets and was also comfortable being amongst other harris hawks. So nothing in the bag, but some important lessons learnt.
At the beginning of December Bracken and I headed down south to Mentmore Falconry, where I had arranged to spend a few days with the lovely Amy Wallace. I want to see some hunting first hand with Amy and have a go myself, as well as take part in a Female Falconers Club field meet.
On the first day we went out with our harris hawks - me with Bracken, and Amy with Venom (a 17 year old male Harris Hawk). Venom was the first to fly and had a partridge in the bag within about 10 minutes of setting off - a tough act to follow! Venom had his fill of his partridge and then it was Bracken's turn.
I sent him off into the trees for some following on along the hedgerows. Amy explained to me what I needed to do and what I was looking for in regard to quarry and their movements, but also what I needed to be looking out for with Bracken - in case he was showing any signs of being interested in something that I may not have seen.
We were out for a good while, according to his tracker he covered 5 and a half miles, and much to my joy he was really trying hard. No more half-hearted attempts, he was tuned in and going after pheasants and partridge. It was just bad luck that he missed, mainly due to cover getting in the way in the final moments of the hunt. Regardless, it had been another day of learning, and seeing Bracken switch on the way he had, I had high hopes for the field meet the following day. He didn't disappoint...
It was another day of working hard for Bracken. This time he covered almost 8 miles. He had more chases and near misses - doing some wonderful acrobatics in the air, stooping into cover chasing partridge, but still no luck. Then we got to a large spinney of trees. He waited on a branch, watching me while I went in to see if I could flush anything out for him that may be hiding in the cover.
When I entered the spinney I was a bit saddened to see that it was actually quite clear in the middle, so I didn't expect to flush anything. But when I looked over at Bracken he was fixed on a bush at the opposite end to him, bobbing his head up and down, which told me something had caught his eye.
As I worked toward the bush, he launched from his perch and headed towards it, just as a covey of partridge broke their cover! I saw him swoop down and I went in after him. There he was, proudly sat on his partridge. He had caught it by the head and the partridge had passed quickly, so there was no need for me to help him dispatch it.
Instead Amy showed me how to help him get into the nice bits of meat, so I opened up the breast (after we had checked for any signs of disease or shot), and Bracken enjoyed his reward.
I had tears in my eyes. I was so proud of him after seeing how hard he had worked. Our first successful hunt together and my first successful hunt ever. The feeling of elation I got from the effort and learning it had taken us to bring everything together and work as a team, was amazing. I knew from then on that falconry in its truest form was definitely for me.
We carried on for the rest of the season, going out with others as well as on our own. New Year's Eve was the first successful hunt we had when it was just the two of us working together with no one there to offer pointers. It was time for me to put what I had been learning to use.
We set out along the hedgerows on my local permission, with him on the glove to begin with. He had a chase off the glove after a rabbit we spooked. There was a fair distance between us when it bolted but Bracken was keen so I decided to let him have a go. But it beat him to cover.
Bracken flew back into a tree so I got him following on along the hedgerows. I flushed a hen pheasant out for him but the cover got in the way yet again. Then I heard a big commotion ahead and saw a load of pheasants flying up at the top of the hill, sounding their alarm calls. I noticed the fox causing the hubbub so called Bracken back to me, so that he was safe on the glove.
We carried on up the hill, watching the fox which had now clocked me and was heading away. I watched it carry on and run off over the fields away from us until it was out of sight. I went the opposite direction to it and got Bracken back following on.
I decided to go around the small bit of woodland and back to where the pheasants had been spooked. My thinking being that as the fox didn't actually make it to them, hopefully some of the birds had gone back in the cover around that area and were sat up waiting for the danger to pass, not knowing the fox was now gone. We got back to the side of the woods where the pheasants had stirred so I lead Bracken along the edge of the woodland towards the hedges and cover where I thought they might may be. I walked along for a bit keeping one eye out for pheasants, while the other eye was on Bracken and what he was doing.
He was sat in a tree ahead of me when I noticed him start bobbing his head at a thick bit of cover on the edge of the woods, so I went over and gave it a few whacks from the woodland side hoping to spook whatever he had seen into the open. It was a cock pheasant and of course it went the opposite way I wanted and flew up past me into the deeper cover of the woods.
But Bracken was in hot pursuit, and I watched as he flew on and then dove down into the cover. From the sound of it I knew he had bound to the pheasant, so I made my way quickly over to them and found him holding on to his prize. It was still alive when I got to them, so I despatched the bird quickly, and opened up the breast for Bracken and he had his fill. Our first success on our own.
A quick dip!
Our adventures continued through the season - too many to mention in one article (as I'm already rambling!), but I have to quickly mention our final day of the season together. We visited a new permission, going after rabbits as it was a Sunday, so no game hunting was planned. We were doing some lovely following on, when Bracken got it into his head that he wanted to fly right across the field we were in. (It was a big field - between 1/2 mile across) He wanted to go sit in a tree which turned out to be on the other side of a river. Not a problem I thought, I'll just go over to the riverbank and call him across to my glove.
In the process of heading over to him I accidently spooked some moorhens, and of course Bracken decided to have a chase. So down he stooped out of his tree and straight into the river! He was soaked so there would be no flying out for him, and of course there were no bridges across for miles around.
So I was stuck with the decision of what to do next - watch and see what happens (I had visions if him going under or being carried off in the current) or take action. I decided to take action and did probably one of the most stupid things I have done in my life. I jumped into the river and swam across to the other side to get him out, fully clothed. Even with my boots still on.
I got him out, but this now gave us the slight problem of how to get back across the other side?! I couldn't swim back with a bird in one hand, I tried! And we were both wet and very cold (it was a lovely clear frosty morning). Long story short, a local farmer's wife found us and with the help of her, her husband and a bit of rope...Bracken and I were pulled back across the river to safety and warmth. What a way to end our season!
So that was my first unexpected season hunting with a hawk. Bracken is now back home at the centre, ready for his foster dad duties as the breeding season begins. I miss the old lad terribly, though I get to see him when I'm volunteering at the centre. He taught me so much, as did everyone who offered me the chance to go out with them. I will be forever grateful as it all helped me make my decision on where I want to go with falconry going forward.
I'm pleased to say that I have my name down for a young harris hawk who will hopefully be arriving with me in mid-August. So the adventure will start again. This time with me training up my very first young hunting harris hawk in a few months' time. Until then I will have to make do with reminiscing about my first season and the things I have learnt. Now I'm preparing for the next chapter.