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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 21. Airborne

The day of reckoning came. I was confident N-Z would come at the call, but I was less confident about how he would go about it. Would it be a direct, straight-arrow flight, or would he take himself up to a tree and then swoop down? Would he do a “fly by,” meaning would he make a pass and then buttonhook back from the opposite direction to come to my glove? I took him up to the small field above the house where I had been flying him on the creance. To N-Z it probably seemed like any other training day, but my heart was pounding as I knelt to set him on the perch in the middle of the field.

Deliberately I removed the leash and the swivel from his jesses, then rose and walked carefully away, afraid that one wrong move would set him in motion before I was ready. As I walked with my back to him, I slipped a quail leg out of my pocket and between the thumb and forefinger of my glove. I stopped, turned, and raised my gloved hand, but never had a chance to blow the whistle. N-Z was on the move straight to my glove. He came in like a bullet now that he wasn’t dragging the weight of the creance line. His second flight assured me he knew he was free. Once he finished the quail leg, I set him again on the perch and stepped back.

There was just a short pause before he launched himself into the air. He circled around me before landing high in the top of a spruce at the edge of the field. I slipped my glove off and pulled the lure loaded with quail meat from my pocket. Giving a whistle, I swung the lure once before tossing it to the ground between us. He was down in a flash. As he gorged on quail, I knelt beside him to slip my hand behind his legs to attach the snap of my hunting leash to each jess. We sat there for a while in the pleasant, sunny afternoon. Both of us were pleased with the outcome of the first day of free flight.

For most of that week, N-Z and I did flight training in the small field. I would perch him and step away. When I stopped and turned to face him, he would shift from foot to foot once or twice and then he was off. Every day the flights got better, longer, faster. But for a falcon, he was flying extremely low. By the second day he was nearly at treetop level—too low for a bird that normally does well over a thousand feet and higher in the sky with ease. By the fourth free flight he was weaving in and out of the treetops lining the field at roadside. I would lose sight of him for moments at a time, but his reappearance was something I could count upon.

If N-Z grew tired, he had a favorite limb in a spruce where he would alight to catch his breath. If I saw his wing drooping during one of his stops, I’d pull out the lure and he’d react instantly. I tossed the lure up so he could hit it at the apex of its ascent and ride it down. My heart throbbed faster in unison with his wing beats during each flight. Time and space ceased to exist. There was only the falcon circling, and in the middle of the circle was me holding down the scrap of earth that was the center of the universe for both of us.

I wanted to share N-Z’s progress with Michael Amaral and Chris Martin, the men who had climbed the cliff and banded him as an eyass. Several days later the two came to watch as I flew him. They were curious about the state of N-Z’s drooping wing, so I repeated the flights we had been doing all week. Michael and Chris had seen peregrines fly, but I think this was the first time they had seen one responding to the lure and landing to peacefully eat quail as a human clipped his jesses to her leash. They had cameras ready but remained at a distance, not wanting to frighten N-Z. I told them he was bombproof when eating his dinner. I don’t think they believed a wild falcon could be so calm, but N-Z proved my words as they approached. They were pleased with the rehab conditioning we had done so far.

“I have never seen a peregrine flying in such tight surroundings,” Michael remarked. Chris nodded in agreement. Michael’s words raised a question in my mind: Was I restricting N-Z with my choice of flight area? “Perhaps I should change to a larger field nearby,” I offered. This prompted a discussion about transporting N-Z. Fortunately there was a large overlook at the top of our hill with a bigger field in which to work, and it was just a short walk away.

The next week, we trekked to the field on the hilltop. N-Z rode the glove very well. In some places the roadside shoulder was narrow, and I turned my body to shield him from the whoosh of cars and trucks speeding past. We had done this walk many times before. Walking with N-Z was a good way to work at manning, and the balancing upon my glove gave him some mild exercise for his wing droop. On our previous hikes we would often pause at the beautiful vista called the Overlook. The view went for miles, across the Contoocook River valley to the slopes of Riley Mountain to the west. During sunset or when fall has painted the landscape with color, the Overlook is a favorite of photographers and nature lovers. The field rolled downhill, terraced out, and then dropped steeply into the wooded valley. At one side was a grove of tall pines. To the north, Mount Sunapee was visible. To the south, Hedgehog Mountain cut the view of the river valley. Above all was limitless sky. Here N-Z would be free of the cramped boundaries of the small field in which we had been flying.

Not everyone was happy about our plan to fly there. The landowners, our neighbors, were very generous in encouraging me to use the field, but there were at least two tenants who were displeased about N-Z’s arrival there. North America’s smallest falcon is the kestrel, and a pair of them had nested in the grove at the side of the field. N-Z and I had been the target of a barrage of high-pitched complaints from them during our rest stops at the Overlook. The kestrels were frenetic in their efforts to discourage us, going so far as to swoop down at us with shrill cries. My presence alone would not have caused either of the kestrels to turn a feather, but N-Z’s shape instilled instant alarm. The histrionics would eventually subside as the kestrels retreated to the cover of the trees.

Having flown raptors in the Overlook field before, I knew the terrain well and had a plan when I arrived with N-Z for our first flight there. The field was divided roughly into three parts consisting of a lower half and two upper quadrants. An overgrown farm road bounded by stone walls traversed downward near the center. A stone wall cut midway across the width of the field to separate those upper sections from the lower portion. In the higher field the grass was long and dense, which made walking difficult. It was easier to take the center path over the old farm road down to the lower level. The thin soil on the lower half of the field below the wall had little vegetation and walking was easier. There were several large boulders that could be used as perfect take-off spots for the falcon.

It had become our practice for me to perch N-Z, step away, and give one swing to the lure as his take-off signal. I would quickly pocket the lure out of sight while N-Z worked around me in circles. On the first day at the new flying field, I set him on one of the boulders and turned my back. I was as uncertain of what would happen next as I had been on our first flight at the house. Would all this space and air exert a pull to N-Z that my callback could not overcome?

N-Z wasted no time once I flipped the lure out. He started around me, pumping his wings to gain height. Freed from the boundaries of the smaller field, he began making use of the limitless space. He rose higher than I had ever seen him fly and then spread out his circle enormously, zipping out over the river valley and down its length to disappear past where Hedgehog Mountain jutted towards the west. Within moments he crested Hedgehog on his way back. I could tell by his wing beats that this longer, faster flight had tired his injured wing, so I pulled out the lure again and blew the whistle. His circle shortened up to the size of the Overlook field, and as he passed over me, I threw the lure up for him. He landed with it not twenty feet from where I had been standing and began eating the quail tied upon it.

My heart was singing. N-Z had come back even before I had signaled. He was basing his flight around me. Everything had worked perfectly. I barely touched the ground as I walked home with him. However, N-Z’s wing was drooping badly. As I walked, I stroked the wing edge and he tucked the wing up. After he had rested and sunned for a bit on his block in the yard, he was carrying the wing much better. I received the obligatory falcon bite as I removed his equipment once back in his mew.

As often as I could, we made the trip up to the Overlook to fly, but it was never as often as I would have liked. With N-Z’s regular flights a priority, it was more difficult to fit in time to work with Witch. She had reached a point when the hours of training I devoted to her were critical. She was doing beautifully at rising from her perch to catch a low-slung lure. She allowed me to handle her jesses, to step over her, to move around and about her as she stood eating. Immediately when she finished eating what the lure had held, she looked to me with my outstretched glove waiting.

Unlike N-Z, Witch had been trained to the hood. I have hood-trained older birds successfully, but it is much easier with youngsters like Witch to accustom them to wearing a hood. I began when Witch was still downy. An oversize hood, called a rufter hood, was placed gently on her head just before feeding. At this point she was eating from a dish. As soon as the hood was on her head, I would set out her dish. Then I’d remove the hood gently and, Voila!There was her dinner. Instant pleasurable association!

This process of hooding was done religiously for every feeding, so as she grew, Witch never minded wearing a hood. Eventually she was introduced to a hood that was perfectly sized to her head. It was mandatory for Witch to be hood-trained because I travel with my falcons to hunting areas, and this necessitates them riding side by side tethered and perched on a cadge. If the falcons were unhooded, they might hurt one another or become frightened by riding in the car. Or they’d become so excited or agitated, they’d be worn out by the time we reached the hunting fields.

A well-trained falcon will accept a properly fitted hood gracefully. This is known in falconers’ parlance as being “good to the hood.” Witch had become very accustomed to the hood, which made handling and hooding her very easy. Since the falcon is usually sitting upon the glove while being hooded, the falconer, in order to tighten or loosen the braces (the straps that tighten and loosen the hood), uses her free hand to pull one brace while the matching brace is clasped in her teeth. The falconer’s head bobs down and accomplishes this as smoothly as a ballet dancer pivots his prima ballerina. The entire operation resembles a beautiful pas de deux. The act of a falcon sweetly accepting the hood is one of the most beautiful things I know. I took pride and pleasure in the fact that Witch was good to the hood.

When we were done with the day’s training, I could not bring myself to hurry away the pleasant hours as the two falcons sunned, bathed, and preened while sitting perched in our yard. Passing traffic, birds flying overhead, and flitting butterflies were entertaining to both birds. To watch these peregrines, lovely and at ease in their surroundings, was more than adequate repayment for the rest of my hectic hours.

Training progressed into the final weeks of July. N-Z’s flights at the Overlook were now routine. With every flight he became stronger and faster. My timing at swinging the lure had to be just right since all our flights now ended with N-Z coming down for a pass as I tossed it high into the air. He would hit and bind to it, riding it down to land and feed. Most days we were working in absolute synchronization. Some days, however, things did not go as planned. These were the days I learned lessons about falcons and the flying of falcons.

One such day I climbed the hill on a bright sunny morning, then turned to make the short walk down the pathway at the center of the field to the spot we normally began flying. I set N-Z on our accustomed boulder, stepped away as I pulled out the lure for one swing, and quickly tucked it under my armpit as the falcon rose and began ringing up in increasingly wide circles about me. At that moment a gust of cool, moist wind fanned the back of my neck. I turned to see an enormous black cloud had blown up behind my shoulder. There’s an inside joke shared by New Englanders: If you do not care for the weather here, wait five minutes, and it will change. I had been paying attention to N-Z, not to the sky. As I had walked to our spot, this storm had been quickly brewing and was now boiling over the ridge at my back. It was headed straight for us, and within moments the sun was blocked out. Big wet drops began to splash down.

My first reaction was to blow my whistle and swing the lure. I wanted to get N-Z down before the deluge hit. He immediately came back in a tighter circle around me and paused between wing beats to look at me, then took off to circle again. The spattering raindrops increased to a steady shower. He came back and seemed to hover over me fifty feet in the air before making a half-hearted stoop from which he immediately pulled out. On the third circle he cast me a look, then took off for the cover of the big pines, where I saw him land on a high branch sheltered by thickly needled limbs above it. By now I was already as soaked as if someone had emptied a barrel of water over me. I had no desire to become a human lightning rod in the open field, so I decided to sit down. There was nothing to do but wait for the rainstorm to end. I could see N-Z’s silhouette perched in the pines. Obviously one of us had enough sense to come in out of the rain, and it wasn’t me.

Rather than contemplate how wet I was getting, I thought about what had just happened. N-Z had been responsive to the whistle and to the sight of the lure but had not come down. He had attempted to do so more than once, which indicated a frustration on his part that he could not accomplish what he wanted to do. It worked itself out in my brain as I sat; I realized N-Z had not been able to overcome his instinct not to land in a rainstorm. Of course, it was falcon common sense. If he had become soaked on the ground, how would he have been able to elude some predator or other danger?

The sun shone again, and all across the field and the valley below, steam was rising in the summer’s heat. Despite the mist I could see N-Z plainly where he was perched in the pine, but now he was facing in the opposite direction. I saw him bob once or twice and then launch out over the valley. His flight took him past Hedgehog Mountain and out of my sight. I held my breath for a heartbeat or two, but he did not reappear. Well, I thought, N-Z was due to be released in a week or so. He just moved the timetable up a bit. I had hoped to have a small ceremony for the release, but N-Z had released himself, and I wasn’t sorry. If he was ready to go, so be it.

I began climbing the hill along the farm road path, idly swinging the lure as I walked, thinking about the times N-Z and I had flown in this field. About halfway up, I was startled by a sudden noise behind my ear. Whap! As I turned, there at my eye level, with the lure firmly grasped in his talons, N-Z sailed past. He was riding the lure like a magic carpet as he hurtled sideways past my face, giving the situation a clownish air of high comedy. N-Z might as well have had a cartoon bubble over his head that said, Where’d you think you were going without me? His flight down the valley had not been a departure but had been a “drying out the feathers” run.

I knelt beside where he and the lure had landed and caught up his jesses. I must have worn a smile as wide as the field. In the written rules and unwritten contract of wildlife rehabilitation, the rehabber knows attachment to wild animals is not allowed. N-Z had his own contract, however. The precepts of falconry had built a bond I had not expected. I knew that N-Z, once I cut the bond, would return to his wild state with no difficulty. But in the deepest part of my heart, I realized that the bond I had with such a free and perfect creature was a rare privilege. Soaking wet, smiling like a lunatic, I left the field with the falcon I had brought there.

The ninety days were coming to an end, and it was time to plan N-Z’s release. He still had a distinct wing droop, but after a period of rest, it would reset to a normal position. I was not sure how this would affect his life in the wild, but N-Z’s performance during flight proved him able to hunt. It was time for him to go. I called every person with a role in his recovery, including the highway workers who had plucked him from the frozen lake and Dave at Squam Lakes Science Center, who had set N-Z’s rehab with us in motion, to invite them to the release. Michael Amaral and Chris Martin were invited, too. A few others cleared their schedules to come.

Everyone wanted to see the “star.” I got N-Z out to have his photo taken. There was a representative from the local newspaper and a reporter from the Concord Monitor. I had decided having the press was a good idea. What if N-Z got into trouble after his release? If people knew there was a recovering peregrine in the area, they would watch out for him.

When the time came to walk to the Overlook, I walked alone with N-Z. A small group trailed some distance behind, and others drove on ahead. The group re-formed at the top of the Overlook while I went down the path to our flying area. Everyone had a perfect view of the action. The reporters followed me partway, settling to sit on the path where they could see and photograph what was about to happen. I had briefed everyone that we would do a normal practice flight. Then, after retrieving N-Z from the lure, I would take a seat on one of the large boulders in the wall to feed him up on quail, gaining time to remove the equipment he wore.

Everything happened just the way I had planned. N-Z made some large circles out over the valley before I called him down with a lure laden with half a quail. As he ate, I retrieved him. By the time I got settled on a big, flat rock, he had finished his half. At that point I deviated from everything we had done in the past by slapping a large quail into my glove. N-Z never hesitated but went straight to work devouring this new prize. He was eating away steadily as I unclipped my hunting leash, pulled out each jess, and began working at the removable anklets one at a time to bare each leg.

By the time I had finished, N-Z was half done with the quail and was becoming very full. He wore only the big, non-removable federal band. He glanced over at me in curiosity but never showed any nervousness about me handling his feet and legs so intimately. I was worried he would be startled and would bate from my glove, as there was nothing holding him to me except his eagerness to finish the quail. I wanted to get both anklets off. They were expensive and could be reused. If he had bated off then, he would have left wearing one or both. Because the grommets were no longer secured by a jess, the anklets encircling his legs would eventually fall off in the wild.

I finished and slipped the anklets into my pocket. All that was left was for him to leave. N-Z, however, was not about to go while there was still quail on the glove. I soaked up the sunshine and the experience of holding this wonderful falcon on my glove for the last time, while N-Z savored every last morsel of his favorite dish. His trust was total and, even though I had altered from our usual course of action, he was satisfied to sit calmly. The snap of the quail bones was audible to the reporters a short distance away. Everyone was waiting in the still summer morning to see what would happen next.

Finally N-Z was done. With the air of a country gentleman finished with an unusually choice repast, N-Z looked up and around. His crop was distended. I knew he was all for settling in a comfortable spot to let the meal digest, but we had an agenda of which N-Z was not aware. By cropping him up so fully, I made sure he was not going to be suffering hunger pangs for at least two days. He would have time to orient himself, to pick a hunting area, and to settle back into his wild existence before there was any urgency to find food. He picked at one tiny bit of red quail meat and then calmly feaked, or rubbed his beak clean, on my glove. I raised my glove on high. Every human witness tensed, waiting for him to explode into the air. Nothing happened.

I brought him down, eye to eye with me. “Time to go, buddy,” I said, and raised my glove again. N-Z looked down at me, and though falcon faces are not very expressive, I knew there was a question mark in his eyes. The third time I raised my glove in a thrust upward, and I gave a flick to my wrist. The message to N-Z was very clear: It was time to fly again. He took to the air and began his circles around me. That was the last of him I saw because I purposefully did not look up again. I climbed down from my perch and started out of the field. It was not easy to see my sneakers taking one deliberate step after another because my eyes were swimming with tears. I always cry when bidding good friends adieu. Someone told me long ago it brings bad luck to watch those leaving as they go out of sight. And I certainly wished for N-Z all the good luck in the world.

They told me later that N-Z broke his circling and returned to hover over me as I climbed the path. He paused and, seeing no response from me, made a wider circle, climbing all the while. I thought I saw a raptor shape flitting through the lower clouds hanging over the valley as I reached the highway, but my eyes weren’t focusing well. There was only one thing I wanted at the moment. Jim enveloped me in a big hug. “You did good,” he said, giving my shoulders a squeeze. The painful lump in my throat melted away as we walked home together.