Shortly after I got back from Ireland last summer I discovered an event at Troon Country Club called the Hawk Talk was scheduled for November 18th. I signed up for it right away. I was hoping it would be interesting like my experience several years ago at the Burren Birds of Prey Centre that I visited with Kevin’s family in County Clare. I wrote a story about it: “Hear the Heartbeat.”
The Troon CC Hawk Talk was conducted by Master Falconer, Tiffany White, with Sonoran Desert Falconry. Along with her colleague, Sally Knight (a General Falconer and the co-founder of Sonoran Desert Falconry) they dazzled us with birds in their care like Dracarys, the Harris’ hawk. They introduced us to Uno the Kestrel and Zeke the Peregrine falcon. But it was Sophie the Barn owl that stole my heart.
The Hawk Walk
Kevin’s daughter, Nicola McGrath, and her husband, David Boyle, came down from Dublin to Clare for a visit with their two boys, Adam and Simon.
David drove us to the Burren by way of Corkscrew Hill. The narrow road was just like it sounds.
We reached the aviary where they house the Birds of Prey, which include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures and owls from all over the world. We continued to the grass arena with the magnificent hills of The Burren in the background. We watched the handler perform with “Batty” the Bateleur eagle. We were told she could fly up to 200 miles a day, but could only sustain a wing beat for two to three minutes. Bateleur is French for “tight-rope walker,” describing the bird’s characteristic habit of tipping its wings when it flies. She was a magnificent, very large and quite fluffy bird, predominantly black with a gorgeous streak of red plumage down her back.
A couple of other birds did perform, one being an American owl who although he looked quite large, only weighed 2 lbs. He was “built for stealth — very quiet.” All the birds put on quite a show, but did “not fly for fun.” Their handler quipped, “This is a business relationship! We make the most of their laziness and they make the most of our generosity,” as he fed them little morsels of food throughout their performance.
With the demonstration over, it is now time for our Hawk Walk. There was a tinge of trepidation when I learned that Nicola and David had designated me as the one to ‘fly the hawk.’ “Are you sure David shouldn’t be the one to do this?” “No, Taba, it’s going to be you.”
Our instructor and hawk handler, Jamie, appeared with Eric the Harris’ hawk. As I slipped the elbow length glove over my left hand, Jamie untied Eric from his glove and transferred the raptor over to me. Then he tied a falconry knot entirely with his right hand only, informing us, “You must be able to do everything with one hand and it’s always the right hand.” “Why is that?” we all asked in unison. “So you can draw your sword if you have to!”
The hour walk through the Hazel woodland was full of wondrous facts, starting with the sport of falconry. Jamie told us the Chinese and Japanese have been hunting with birds of prey for some 3,000 years, but the Harris’ hawk was only recently introduced in the late 60’s.
After a few minutes, I got comfortable with Eric, who perched on my glove, just so. It was amazing to be eyeball to eyeball with this beautiful creature. He would often fly away and be “called back” with a little bit of meat placed on my glove. Eric would always fly to a branch high in a tree and swoop down in a second or two, making a perfect landing every time.
At first I kept my eyes closed when I saw him coming, as his wing span was easily three feet and I wasn’t sure where those wing tips would wind up! Eric would tuck his feathers in precisely at the last possible second so they never touched my face. I relaxed and got more confident, and stared right at his intense eyes, while he zeroed in on his “reward” that Jamie placed on my glove.
Eyes Like a Hawk
I will forever have new respect for the phrase, “Eyes like a hawk.” They are small, but penetrating. Brown just like mine. Maybe that’s why I bonded so well with this bird. It turns out that southern Arizona is part of their natural habitat. They even nest in saguaro cactus, which explains why coyotes would be their most feared predators when they are on the ground.
The top of the beak is bright yellow with little nostrils, becoming a dark grey color and then white at the sharp tip. The legs were equally yellow, each with four powerful talons. His feathers are mostly brown, with a reddish color blending in where the wings attach, and then his tail feathers are tipped with white.
Adam asked Jamie lots of very intelligent questions, like “What do they eat?” “Rabbits, mice and other small animals,” said Jamie. “Would they eat other birds?” Adam wondered. “Yes they would,” affirmed Jamie.
David followed the line of questioning, “When they are in the wild, do they hunt cooperatively?” “Yes they do,” explained Jamie, “one or more might scout the prey and another swoops in to attack.” (Note: Tiffany told us it is the female “that closes the deal.”)
“These Harris’ hawks are very social,” informed Jamie, “and very easygoing around people.” Eric did seem perfectly happy in his well-learned role to fly away and back to us as we followed a path through the woods…often varied to avoid predictability. Every now and then, he made a short, high-pitched sound, as if to let us know where he was.
“When he flies up high in the tree, is he looking for something to eat? Will he leave and never come back,” queried Adam. “Yes, although he really couldn’t survive in the wild, he has never lost his instincts. Every now and then he does catch something!”
We learned that all the little bits of food, in this case chicken, were stored in a pouch to be eaten later. Sure enough, as the walk progressed, we could see the bulging pouch. “He only eats raw food, never cooked food,” Jamie clarified. Adam worked it out, “That would be chicken sushi.”
Hear the Heartbeat
Jamie also told us, “The hawk can see much better than us but doesn’t have peripheral vision, which means he has to turn his head if he wants to see something not straight ahead.” Adam wondered, “Does he hear much better than us, like an owl?” “Hawks hear very well, but the owl has much more acute hearing. Owls actually have one ear higher than the other and they find their prey by hearing, not by seeing. In fact, even though they have big eyes, they can’t see well up close. If a mouse was right under an owl, the owl wouldn’t see him.”
Adam wanted to know, “Couldn’t the owl smell the mouse?” “No, but he could hear the heartbeat.” Hear the heartbeat. Now that was amazing.
Finally we headed to the Birds of Prey Center to join up with Nicola and Simon, who was now getting his second wind. Back to the arena we went.
This time we got to see the handlers fly two Harris’ hawks together, a brother and sister, the female being about one third larger. Again, we were told that they are very social and easygoing, completely different from the falcons, which are much more high-strung. They are hooded to calm them down. The largest of the falcons, the Peregrine, is the fastest animal on earth, achieving speeds of 200 mph. (Note: Tiffany told us a Peregrine has been clocked at 220 mph.)
Our flying display concluded with a pair of massive White-backed Vultures, which were surprisingly beautiful. The pair were named Henry and Dyson, after two models of the Hoover vacuum cleaner! Their names are funny, but their endangered status is not. Members of the Gyps family, they are suffering from an extremely rapid population decline.
After such a special day of many wondrous things, David guided our flock back to our nest in Liscannor, electing not to return by the Corkscrew road, and instead taking another scenic road which hugged the coast for part of the journey.
I was securely wedged between the two boys, who promptly fell asleep in their car seats. Not a peep out of either one of them as we wove our way through the Burren landscape. They are so sweet and peaceful. I think I can just about hear their heartbeat.