Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Insight Into Hawking

On Tuesday just gone, I had my very generous birthday present from the current crop of step-children and Mrs The Millbrooker. Not that it was my birthday; much like Dong and riding the steam trains on the Severn Valley Railway three months after the event, I had a voucher to have an experience given to me on the day itself and used it to have my day with some fearsome hunters a short while afterwards.

Mrs The Millbrooker drove me in the Millbrooker Towers Jalopy over Dartmoor, through Yelverton and Princetown, towards Moretonhampstead and eventually to Puddaven Farm, the home of Dartmoor Hawking School of Falconry (to give it its full title).

This is Mike (a fellow "experience day" customer) and me doing early arrival impersonations and waiting for two more participants in the barn at Puddaven; coffee would shortly be be forthcoming, and very welcome.Very soon we were joined by Paul and his wife (whose name escapes me - poor doddery old dribbling idiot that I am) and shortly after that our host for the day, Martin, arrived and gave us a few safety tips and beginner-style advice about handling his birds.

If anyone reading this is considering having a go at Dartmoor Hawking (or any other establishment) - be aware this is not an activity for committed vegans with meat hang-ups or, indeed, anyone squeamish about dead things. Birds of prey don't come to you because they like you, they come to you because you have food; what they eat is dead stuff, which quite often consists of chick legs (complete with feet and feathers) and other such delicacies. You will have this stuff plopped onto your hand.

The first session involved learning to fly the birds in one of Martin's fields, starting with owls. Apparently owls aren't very bright (so perfect for beginners like me, I guess). First up was "Biscuit" the Boobok Owl, who turned out to be my personal favourite of the day, despite being not very bright (although a positive genius by owl standards according to Martin).
And here's me after Biscuit had flown from his favourite hunting perch to collect a piece of chick from the top of my gloved hand.
Biscuit is a very old owl at fifteen; in the wild they only make a couple of years normally and he's already well over the average for those in captivity. All the birds here are bred in captivity: they have no concept of living wild.

Once Biscuit was "fed up" - a phrase derived from falconry and hawking, simply meaning the bird has eaten enough and has no more motivation to fly, Martin fetched our second bird of the day. Mrs The Millbrooker left at this point to pursue her studies at Exeter University library, so my official photographer became me and anyone else who was kind enough to point a camera.

Bird number two shown here with Martin as he explained how she works.And here she is in glorious close up; I've never been this close to a barn owl before - cop a load of those beautiful markings. Our lovely wee barn owl also got "fed up" eventually, and we were introduced to the big fellow: a Siberian Eagle Owl. Six-foot wing span, talons capable of taking foxes or small deer (Martin told us there are records of these taking wolves). These boys don't do much moving about; their hunting method is generally to sit still for hour after hour and wait for something to pass by, onto which they then swoop down from their perch. What a glorious beast this is:

That was it for owls; it was time to move onto something faster and a tad brighter. Martin proudly brought out his kestrel, which seemed remarkably small; they appear much larger when they're hovering, which is how most of us spot them in the wild. This one is a male and (like all birds of prey) is also smaller than the female of the species. This was the only bird that I missed in flight on one occasion; with my restricted field of vision I was looking just tiny angle in the wrong direction and nearly jumped out of my skin as he landed on my hand, which is where he is in the second shot below.

After a brief interlude for lunch (very yummy - tomato soup, plentiful rolls, cold meats, salad, fruit), Martin brought out one of his peregrine falcons. The peregrine was too fast for beginners to handle safely, so we were treated to a demonstration as Martin swung a lure made of leather and crow's wings and the falcon make breathtakingly fast passes before finally thudding into the rapidly spinning lure, talons first. I didn't even reach for the camera; even with my eyesight I could follow the action, but it was far too fast for my little digital machine to capture.

Peregrines can reach well over 200mph in a dive for prey; in this display our bird was certainly in excess of 100mph. Here's the raptor itself both before and after its successful "kill" of the lure.

The weather looked to be closing in up on the moor, so we broke with the planned schedule and headed off for a short walk in the moorland with a pair of Harris Hawks, the idea being that we'd get the walk in before it got too wet and horrible up there.

We bundled into Martin's 4X4 (more or less essential living in these parts; unforgivable for non-countryside dwellers, mind) and headed off past Jay's grave and up to Hound Tor.

The Harrises were let out of their travelling box, as was Daniel the Spaniel (utterly mad creature who adored bouncing about in the bracken) and we set off on an hour or so's potter with the hawks working in tandem, whilst Martin told us how these birds work.

It was a tad wet while were up there and my camera got some moisture on the lens, hence the photos aren't great - but here's a few:

As we drove back to Puddaven Farm in our mildly damp outer wear, the sun broke through and everything got considerably warmer. Hey, don't like the weather in England? Just wait twenty minutes and it'll change.

Last, but not least (nothing wrong with the occasional cliché), back on the farm, we got to play with Martin's gyre falcon (that's pronounced "jer" as in "jersey"). Each of us took the bird to the far end of the field before releasing it to attack a lure held by a fellow "experience dayer" on the end of a fishing pole. We all got a turn at holding the pole, too. The immense thud as the bird takes the lure is quite a thing to feel; it's easy to lose balance.

Here's the gyre falcon in assorted poses; beautiful eh?

And with that, the day was done. And what a great day it was. I'd recommend Dartmoor Hawking and its Experience Day to anyone who likes the idea; you'll learn loads and have a terrific time.

Many thanks to Dozybean, The Wizzers of Soz, The Depitty and Mrs The Millbrooker for my present. And to Martin and Alli at Dartmoor Hawking for organising a fantastic day out.

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