Sunday, January 15, 2006

Falconry meet (part 1)

[part 2]
I attended the California Hawking Club meet in Sacramento Friday and Saturday. It was something of a rollercoaster trip – fun, scary, sad, boring, interesting, and finally not too bad.

The mechanical bunny track was very cool. It's basically a long string looped around a bunch of rollers, creating a horizontal track. Rollers can be placed pretty much anywhere, though the track should not cross over itself. The demo setup was about 50 feet square, with a V shape chunked out of one side. Powered by a wheel attached to a car battery, it slings your lure around the track at variable speed, and the zigzags imitate a bunny's turns adequately. About 7 or 8 people tried their redtails, goshawks and Harris hawks. We saw some good flights and some mediocre ones.

After that came the lure-flying contest. Lure flying is better than the pigeon derby because the former never takes as much time. There were 10 birds in all, though I only stayed for 8. A couple birds took off to check out something else, but eventually came back. The kestrel was quite interesting to see: she was honestly hunting the lure, and doing the classic kestrel hover in places.

By three I was ready to do some hawking myself. We re-found a field I'd flown once a couple years ago, where P caught a pheasant. Recent heavy rain had turned the field into mush. Fortunately the mud firmed up about 8" down, but it still didn't make it any easier. P grabbed something, hopefully a pheasant, but he ended up in the water on the other side of a creek 8 feet wide and 4+ feet deep. (Three feet I will do, but I don't like getting my crotch wet when I don't have an extra pair of pants.) The prey's back looked like a largish owl, and I was freaking out how to get to them, and worrying about what the owl might do to P – they looked about the same size. I heard a growling call, though, the kind that water birds make: like an adult imitating a kid going 'blaaahhh.'

A snag went all the way across the creek, fortunately, and I was able to retrieve them and only soak one foot. The prey, I learned later, was a bittern, but trying hide it from both birds and getting P off with a tidbit, I had no chance to really look at it. It seemed dead, so I bagged it (the birds would keep coming back to it if I left it there.) P was soaked, and in no mood to keep hunting.

Nonetheless I tried to keep both birds with me and kept on. S went to a nearby power tower overlooking the tules – excellent position. P reluctantly stayed on the T-perch, flapping to dry himself, and we slushed through the tules. The mud was firmer but the reeds thick, and I'd been averaging 6 hours of sleep, so I was wearing down fast. Two hens and a rooster pheasant flushed, and we had one adequate chase, but nothing caught. Finally, S dropped down onto a hen that was freezing. P followed, but landed beside them and didn't assist, the dipshit. A few moments later the hen broke away and S was left with a double handful of feathers. That was pretty disappointing, but I gave him a decent reward for trying. S went back up to the pole, I kept flushing, but the pheasants were all gone. Then S dropped onto something small, lost it, then darted forward and caught it – a Virginia rail.

Two illegal birds was simply bad, and the light was starting to fade. I was at the beginning of a creek which gets deep where the car was, and I didn't want to come out on the wrong side. Going up was obvious, but going down – there were several spots that looked like the creek's bank, and I couldn't tell which was the real one. Everything was mushy. Every step sucked my boot, and I had to take about 600 – if I knew where I was going. I dithered back and forth, prodding for firmer ground with the T and searching for the correct bank, lost sight of the car, and got disoriented. And, honestly, a little freaked because of my distrust of Bay Area mud, which just goes down and down. I know a falconer who sunk chest-deep in it once.

I think I must have walked twice as far as I should have, but finally I found the right bank and spotted the car. Staggered down about halfway, to where the firmer ground was, and practically collapsed on a conveniently dry pallet. I was so tired I was dragging the T-perch, having run out of energy to use it as a staff. S had mostly followed, but P was still wet. It took ten minutes to recover enough to lure in P and get them snapped into the car.

Then I felt the bittern move. It was still alive. I got it out of the bag and set it on the ground, but it was definitely in shock. It didn't get up, just swayed a little. I hate killing things, but I couldn't leave it in that half-state either. I squeezed it in the chest, which usually kills a pheasant in about a minute. Its eyes rolled up, and I took it to the creek. When I got there, it gaped a few times, its neck stiffened, and the bottom dropped out of my heart. Crap, it was still alive. I squeezed it again. Words can't describe how horrible I felt for making it suffer so long. Finally it was really and truly dead, and I put it in the creek.

End of a lousy day. It really was Friday the 13th.

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