Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 10. How High Should You Go?

We were invited by the Friends of Pillsbury State Park in Washington, New Hampshire, to do a falconry program that same fall. Jim was pleased to accept the invitation, as the park was familiar territory from his years at the nearby YMCA camp, and the area has always held a special place in his heart.

We got there early while the morning mist was rising off the lakes and ponds of the park. The place chosen for our presentation turned out to be the loveliest we have ever seen for a demonstration. It was a grassy point backed by a small lake bordered by low hills. The foliage was coming into peak fall color. The blue sky overhead and the colorful hills were reflected in the still water. Never have the birds had such a beautiful backdrop. Injun and I did a flight presentation showcasing his usual finesse. The setting, combined with the friendly park staff, the warm reception from our sponsors, and the appreciation of our audience, made this falconry demonstration our favorite of all the programs we had done.

A summer or two later on a morning in July, I got a call from the young woman who had been the intern at Pillsbury when we did the program. Our presentation must have made an impression upon her. Now she was working in the state office of the Division of Parks and Recreation. Her call was to ask an unusual question: Could we fly a bird on the top of Cannon Mountain? Aside from the experience of flying Injun at the Highland Games, I knew nothing about flying on a mountaintop, but I took a breath and answered in the affirmative. Could a mountaintop be different from a ski slope? I wondered to myself. The young woman said she would get back to us, and I thought, Well, sure we can. There might be problems, but Injun should be ready by early September, and with plenty of time to work at it, he and I will be up for it.

A day later, she called back with word that a commercial for an insurance company would be filmed on top of Cannon Mountain, and the casting agency in California would be in touch to coordinate being hired for the filming.

“When will this be happening?” I asked, thinking, like any logical soul, that film crews would seek a time in the fall when the color at the mountain was at its most spectacular.

“Next week. They plan to film on Thursday.”

I nearly dropped the receiver. Injun had been put up for molt since early in March. Although he was just finishing his molt, he was still overweight, and I had not planned to start flying until cooler weather, perhaps in late August. I had eight days to get a very fat, out-of-­condition Harris’s hawk ready. “Sure,” I answered with a squeak before I hung up the phone.

The first order of business, the immediate order of business I should say, was to get Injun flight ready. I usually do this over a period of two or three weeks. But I had only eight days. So Injun went on a diet, but food reduction alone will not do the trick. Sitting in his mew with a reduced food intake causes a hawk’s metabolism to slow down, burning calories much more slowly. This state of slowed metabolism is called torpor. I had always found it helped Injun to lose weight and get into shape by walking. Not Injun walking, me walking. So every day I made extended hikes with Injun on my glove. His excitement at seeing new things, at shifting to balance against my motion or a breeze catching his feathers, and at occasionally bating off the glove if he got excited—all of these things worked to burn calories. I probably burned a few, too.

A call came from the California agency. The woman on the phone told me her agency was responsible for hiring and coordinating the film crew and actors for the commercial, and had themselves been hired by the advertising firm in New York City. The ad people wished for me to do a flight sequence, she said. Using a peregrine falcon would be nice, the advertising executives thought. I replied they were welcome to find another person for the job as I would not be flying a peregrine, but I could bring Lass, the peregrine I had very recently acquired. I volunteered Injun for the flight sequence. “That will be just fine,” the agency lady said, and it was settled that Lass would be filmed for the close-ups while Injun performed the “stunt” of flying across a ledge on one of the highest points of the mountain.

I was to meet the crew on the appointed Thursday, at an early hour, at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) building at the base of Cannon Mountain. I hung up with beads of sweat on my forehead. Flying a bird on a mountain ledge? How hard could it be? Certainly Lass, still molting and overweight, was not a candidate. Without being able to scout out hazardous conditions like resident red-tailed hawks or buffeting winds, flying on this mountaintop was sure to be a more difficult challenge than I had ever faced. Flying a peregrine (peregrinate means “to wander) under these conditions would have been even harder than flying a reliable hawk, so I would never have agreed to take it on without more preparations.

Injun and I continued our daily forced marches, followed by weighing him every day. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon he was approaching flying weight, so I turned him loose for one quick, successful flight. He still was heavy and relatively untried for the season. I would have to rely on his terrifically strong hunting drive and my skill at flying a hawk on a mountaintop (as yet, entirely unproven).

The next day saw Jim and me on the road as dawn was breaking. Lass, hooded and riding upon her cadge, which is a wooden box used to transport raptors, and Injun in his giant hood were in the car. We pulled into the parking lot of the AMC building right on time, but when we entered, there was no film crew to meet us. Instead, there was what looked like an assortment of sleepy college students reclined on every available resting place or chair, with nylon fabric backpacks and duffels strewn about. We glanced around and were suddenly greeted by a young man who spoke with a crisp British accent and who introduced himself as the director, while the rest of the “students” began to stir and pick up their bags (all filled with cameras and gear for filming as it turned out). We had mistaken the Californians for day-tripping hikers.

More arrivals came, and suddenly we were part of a crowd of ad agency account executives from Madison Avenue, executives from the Boston-based insurance company for which the commercial was being produced, the Californians, a pair of actors portraying the father and son of the commercial storyline, the director who had been flown over from London, England, and a grumpy-looking assistant director who, we were told, had assisted with the Morris the Cat cat-food ads. The acting agency person, who also could be mistaken for a student, turned up at my elbow to welcome us. It was one big party of nearly forty people requiring several trips on the Cannon Mountain tram to haul us all to the top of the mountain.

We found ourselves shuttled into the tram with the director and the acting agency woman. Just before our tram left, the manager of the state park came in to fix his steely glare upon us. “I don’t want those birds anywhere near my tourists,” he said.

“But our birds are perfectly . . .” was all I could get out before the director stepped between the manager and us. He murmured reassurances to the manager so smoothly and politely, the park manager was out of the tram before he knew it and we were on our way. Halfway up the mountain, I realized the manager thought we were professionals coming in with the Californians. He did not realize his bosses at Parks and Recreation had chosen us to do the filming. We, like the park manager, were New Englanders watching the Hollywood stuff unfolding around us. It was the first of many times during the day the director stepped in to handle matters, to level pathways and tempers. No wonder it was worth bringing the man over from London.

On the ride up, the director and the casting agency person filled us in on the scenario. “The script is called ‘How High Should You Go?’ ” the director told us.

“But the crew is already calling it ‘How High Are You?’” said the agent, rolling her eyes.

Ignoring her, the director quickly sketched out the storyline: A man and his son are hiking a mountain trail. They get to the top of the mountain, where the father sits down and starts to wonder if he has enough insurance.

We must have looked incredulous. “Excuse me, but where do a falcon and hawk enter into this?” I asked.

“Oh, a falcon flies over the father’s head. And starts him thinking about insurance,” was the answer.

Once we cleared the tram, Jim was left with Injun at the picnic area while I, with Lass, followed the crew out to a point where the view was the mountain across the Notch from Cannon. Except there was no view. The entire mountaintop was shrouded in thick fog. I was told to place Lass on a boulder while the director, assistant director, and cameraman set up for her close-ups. Filming would begin as soon as the fog lifted, the view appeared behind her, and the sun shone down. “What do we do until then?” I asked.

“We wait,” was the answer. And we did.

For two hours we made small talk and looked at Lass, who sat and looked back at us. Suddenly the air stirred, the dense fog behind Lass rolled away to reveal the other mountaintops, and a beam of sunshine shone directly down on the peregrine. The crew filmed like mad for five minutes before the dense fog rolled right back in. All the time the crew had been filming, I had been able to assess the reasons not to fly on mountaintops.

One important reason had to do with the flock of crows that flew over as soon as visibility had cleared. They would certainly like to drive my bird off Cannon Mountain. The more important reason was that if one of my raptors should fly off, the next perching place was a long way away on the neighboring mountain. Should my bird choose to go there, which could easily be accomplished in one effortless glide, my route to retrieve him would be more than a hundred times as long because I would have to climb down the mountain (or ride the tram), cross the Notch, and climb the neighboring mountain (which did not have a tram). In the back of my mind was the uneasy thought that I had only flown Injun once after months of his being put up. What if I was misjudging how he would react? Flying on Cannon Mountain was too scary to contemplate. Inwardly, I shuddered.

When I left Jim at the picnic area, I was full of false bravado. He had looked around the area as soon as we were out of the tram and pulled me aside just as I had started out to follow the crew. “Nancy, you can’t do this.”

“Yes. Yes, I can do it,” I had replied with confidence.

After nearly forty-five minutes more of watching the fog curtain, we felt the wind stir again. This time the fog cleared for good, and the crew got in twenty minutes of filming every nuance of Lass sitting on a rock before the assistant director said it was time to stop for lunch. Filming the flight sequence would begin on the chosen ledge right after lunch, he announced. I could hardly wait to get back to Jim and the picnic area. “Jim, I can’t do this!” I said.

“Yes, you can,” Jim now said firmly.

The catered lunch for the crew and the executives was marvelous, but I felt like a condemned prisoner eating her last meal. After lunch we put Lass into the giant hood for safekeeping, and Jim went out to assist me and Injun. The ledge was a narrow stage of rock at best ten feet wide and forty feet long which hung over a sheer drop. I was quaking inside as I prepared Injun for flight. The director began setting up the scene. “Where is the furniture?” he called out.

All morning long I had heard snatches of small talk in which “the furniture” was mentioned. “Here we are,” the older actor called back. Suddenly I realized the term applied to the two actors who were playing roles in the commercial. The director put the father-playing “furniture” in the spot he wanted and then turned to me to explain how he wanted the flight to go. After his explanation, I looked around. There were about thirty people gathered at the sidelines.

“I want the set cleared,” I said. This did not win me any popularity contests with the executives who had planned to watch the filming, but the director waved them off. The group went down the trail out of sight. “Can we do one practice run without the actor in the middle of the ledge?” I asked the director. Again, my wishes held sway. The director was allowing me the space to make decisions, he explained to the crew, because he knew he could not direct Injun. Only I could do that. And it better be good, I said to myself.

I put my internal butterflies aside and quickly planned out how we would fly Injun. Jim took a place at the far end of the ledge and held Injun while he waited for my whistle. I saw a boulder about four feet high at the opposite end of the ledge and scrambled up on it. I blew my whistle and raised my glove. Injun came like a shot. My confidence returned. After a long, boring morning, Injun was ready for action. I told the director the actor could now take his place and we could do as many takes as were needed.

With the businesspeople off the ledge, it was quiet. Besides Jim, me, and Injun, there was only the director, the assistant director, the cameraman, and the assistant cameraman, whose job it was to put lighted cans of Sterno underneath the lens to make it appear as though heat waves were coming off the ledge. Oh, yes, the furniture was there, too: a very handsome actor with carefully coiffed hair which had not moved a strand all day.

Jim took Injun and went back to his place. “Bend down,” the grumpy assistant director said to Jim. “I can see you at the side.” Contorting oneself is not easy while holding a hawk and standing poised over nothingness. “Step back another foot,” the assistant director ordered.

“I can’t,” came Jim’s reply. “My heels are hanging over the ledge as it is.” I felt badly for Jim. He hates heights.

“Okay,” said the director. I blew the whistle and Injun made a perfect flight right over the furniture’s head.

The assistant director’s face turned bright red. “I didn’t say ‘Action’!” he exclaimed in exasperation. Obviously he did not care for nonprofessionals like us making mistakes.

“That’s all right,” the director said kindly. “Will the bird do it again?”

Most times, Injun didn’t like flying over strangers, and I knew he didn’t like people in whom he detected impatience. The assistant director was making me tense, and I was not sure what my tension was communicating to Injun. “This time I am using the lure,” I told Jim as I handed Injun off to him. I climbed to the top of the boulder again and had the lure at the ready. Everything was set to go.

“Action!” shouted the grumpy assistant director.

I blew my whistle and swung the lure. Injun came in a beeline across the ledge, dropping lower than before and nearly parting the hair of the furniture. It was the only time the man’s hair moved all day. Injun sailed back up to hit the lure, then dropped with it into the shrubbery just below the far side of the boulder. I could see him following it all the way down to the base of the shrub, and I was afraid he would hurt an eye in the branches. I dove headfirst in after him, which caused the director to think I had fallen off the ledge until my husband assured him I was just going after my bird.

When Injun and I popped up from the brush, there were smiles all around. The director had already viewed the footage and had stopped it at his favorite spot to show me. There was Injun, filling the scene, his wings forming a stop-action teardrop about five inches above the head of the actor. The director was thrilled. We did not need to shoot again, which was good, he said, as the day was getting long and the son-playing furniture was growing a five o’clock shadow, so they needed to quickly finish filming.

We met the agency woman at the foot of the tram. She handed us a check for a thousand dollars. Injun and Lass had done a very good day’s work, but the commercial, as far as I know, never aired on TV. We chalked the memorable day up to another unique experience we would not have had if it had not been for our birds.