by Joe Atkinson
You do all the necessary things; like checking the local TV stations, waiting for the talking heads to get through all the meaningless news and finally show the weather forecast. For me, news that does not directly relate to whether I can go hawking in the morning is of little interest. OK, I confess, it all sounds like blah, blah, blah (except sports, naturally). But with the words and now for tomorrows weather I snap back into the present and listen with total focus. The forecast was not good, high winds and heavy rains all day. On to Plan B, my alternative source of weather information, my computer and the internet. The neat thing about looking up weather on the internet is you can get down to the important data, like the hourly rain forecast and, just as importantly, the hourly wind speed. Simply by typing in my zip code, up pops the area that I live in, showing lots of colorful graphics with satellite pictures and radar images. Again, I am not impressed with any of that; well, maybe the satellite pictures since they track the storms, but the rest I can do without. What I’m looking for is the hourly break down of predicted rainfall and wind speed. Those two items do directly affect whether I am going to be able to hawk in the morning.
The first thing I noticed was that the rain was predicted to fall for six hours. Let me see, there are roughly eight hours of daylight each day and it’s only going to rain for six hours, so that would mean there’s a two hour window in which I could fly my falcon yes! Wait, did I do that right? Math was never my strong point. Now the trick is to find that two hour window and then be prepared to respond quickly as the window of opportunity opens. It can be a little tricky because the storm could end up moving faster or slower, throwing the forecast off, sometimes by as much as two hours. Even with all the high powered computers and information we modern falconers have at our fingertips, it’s a good idea to also use the old tried and true, time-tested method of sticking your head out the window. If, when you pull your head back in, it’s wet and your hair is messed up, then it’s raining and the wind is blowing.
When the window of opportunity opens up, like a lull between storms or maybe the storm is just resting for a few moments, you need to be ready. You cannot spend time checking ponds, looking for slips. There’s no time, your window will close. To be prepared I load up falcons, dogs, and get everything in the truck beforehand so I’m ready at a moment’s notice. It’s a good idea to have one pond or creek that you know you can get to quickly and where the odds are you will find ducks. It also helps if your falcon will fly in the rain. Over the years I found that most light colored hybrids (gyr-peregrine) don’t like the rain. They eventually learn to fly in the rain, but aren’t thrilled about it at first. Dark hybrids, on the other hand, seem to like flying in the rain. Seems like the lighter birds lean towards the gyr side of their parents and the dark ones lean towards or act more peregrine-like. The peregrine, being a marine bird for the most part, is geared to wet weather so, to me anyway, this makes sense.
When the alarm clock goes off and you roll over, look out the window, and it’s raining, you can relax and take your time. Not too much time, mind you, but you can take care of some necessities. Teeth brushing, face washing, anti-stink under the arms, stuff that would not get done if you had rolled over and the rain had stopped. Then it’s panic city. Get the birds, dogs, everything in the truck, and roll!
Crystal clear days with blue skies and temperatures in the low 30’s with just a breath of wind are spectacular, but hawking in between storms is just as spectacular. Everything comes alive. You can feel the power of the storm, sense its presence around you, watch it as it moves and builds in front of you. The trees, the birds, everything can sense the energy of the storm, can sense that something is going to happen, something is building. With light rain falling on my truck, I drove over to the small creek where I have hunted wood ducks for years. I wondered if there had been enough rain to turn this normally small, slow moving creek into a fast, angry rush of water, making duck hawking very tricky. It wouldn’t matter much, I’d fly anyway. Today’s flight would be a total speculation flight, high water or not. My window of opportunity just would not allow for anything other than just putting up my falcon and sending in the dogs. The creek is small, maybe ten feet across, but has large trees, three hundred-year-old valley oaks, buckeye trees and black walnut trees, that line the edges on both sides of the creek. I turned my truck left and headed down what used to be a train track but the tracks had long since been removed, leaving just a clearing through the trees. I parked my truck and stepped out. The only sounds I heard were those of a covey of valley quail feeding off to my left. Seeing me, they ran and flew into the cover of the blackberries, sounding off in protest.
The thing about flying in a storm window is there seems to be a sense of urgency. Everywhere I look animals are feeding, hunting, doing what they need to do before the next wave of the storm rolls in and drives them back into hiding. Unlike flying in any other conditions, the sense of urgency that the storm window creates triggers a deep response in all living things, including my two dogs and especially my falcon, who is dancing on his perch, wanting to fly. I wire him up, put my dogs at my heel and, in a light drizzle, begin my approach; crossing fences, winding in and out of trees, making my way to the creek. Stopping just close enough to the
edge of the trees that line the creek, I strike my falcon’s hood and after his normal preflight routine, he is airborne. Hawking wood ducks in this kind of environment requires a lot of trust in your falcon. Because you will not be able see him much, just quick glances as you look up through the tree canopy, you must trust that he is in position. Wood ducks will flush and use the trees to their advantage. They are masters at using trees for escape, that’s why they are called wood ducks. Without the help of two good dogs there would be no flight, the woodies would simply fly down the middle of the creek and my falcon would have little chance.
With my falcon in good position, as near as I could tell, I sent in the dogs. Nothing happened. Next spot, nothing. I moved down the creek heading for other spots or holes, as I call them, where the wood ducks like to hang out. As I was running along the bank I saw my German short hair on point near a known favorite hole. Find the birdie! I yelled out. Over the bank she went, barking. She only barks when she has flushed something, and sure enough, I saw four wood ducks flushing wide out over the far creek bank and instantly turn back into the creek, flying down the center. I quickly moved as far as I could down next to the water and waved my arms, causing the wood ducks to turn sharply and fly back out over dry land. The wood ducks still had one more trick up their sleeve. They flew almost at ground level, just inches off the top of the wet grass, speeding their way to the large patch of blackberries that have grown to the point that they almost cover the entire creek on both sides. So thick and full of needle-sharp thorns is this growth, that virtually nothing can get a wood duck out. However, between where I was standing and the blackberries was a gap with no trees and no cover and that would be my falcon’s only window of opportunity.
I had no idea where my falcon was but, having faith that he would be in the right spot at the right time, I continued the hunt. With my dog running in my direction we effectively pinched the wood ducks, causing them to swing wide, away from the creek, entering the clearing. I stood and watched as the wood ducks sped towards the blackberries. Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of a falcon stooping, the sizzle, and I knew that my falcon was in the right position. The wood duck was, I am sure, confident that it had overcome the threat and was home free. My eight-year-old falcon, however, had something to say about that and, just as suddenly, the sound of a whack seemed to echo off of the storm itself. I saw the woody fold up and drop in the wet grass. My falcon landed softly on his prize, followed closely by both of my dogs who converged on the scene and then, finally, I arrived with a big smile and a feeling that all is right in the world. Well, at least in my world.
With my falcon feeding on my fist and my two dogs in tow, the light drizzle that had begun falling as I made my approach to the creek, turned into more serious rain and the storm started to build once again, resuming its hold on the land, sending all the creatures running for cover. It is a mistake to think that you have in some way beaten the storm or that you are somehow smarter or above the storm’s power, because the truth is you are not. Falconers, I believe, are just a little more in touch with the rhythm of nature through the birds we fly. Not that we know more or are somehow better than the rest of the world, nothing like that. Through the bond we have with the birds that we fly we are just a little more connected to the natural world. Through the actions of our hunting partners we see things that most do not see. We also know that each time we release our birds could be the last time we ever see them. The call of nature is strong and the wind is a seductive temptress. She calls to our birds and sometimes they answer but not on this day.
I walked back to my truck, grateful that I had had this window of opportunity.