Thursday, January 05, 2006

picture perfect hawking

I was wooed by a slender Nordic ice princess. No, not that way. She's a filmmaking student making a documentary on falconry, since one of her friends is one of mine. He flew his falcon, got interviewed, and forwarded her to me as a representative of dirthawking as opposed to longwinging.

She chose one of the hardest subjects to film. Falcons are a bit easier because the falconer has to find the quarry first and keep it there. The bird goes up and holds position until the falconer flushes the duck. Then the falcon goes down in a relatively straight line, and strikes or misses. In short, it's organized, and thus more conducive to being filmed than hawking.

Hawking is all about surprises. Quarry is by nature hidden, and needs to be kicked out of hiding places. Eighty percent of the time you have no idea where it is, or where it'll go, since the next line of ground-quarry defense is to run unpredictably.

For a couple of seasons I carried a video camera around. It was only after a lot of practice that I was able to catch some catches. And I already knew the signs of when to start shooting: the way the birds stand and move tell you if they've seen game and are serious about it. For someone unfamiliar with these signs, it's a free-for-all: you have to be filming constantly and react quickly. If you want to film a hawk catching quarry, the best way, really, is to set up the shot. Find a good clear space so the rabbit will be out in the open long enough for a good chase, and a better chance of being caught.

We did one session before Christmas, with the interview part. That day the birds were too high, and had some nice chases, but didn't connect. It turned out she'd left the autofocus off, and the flight shots were blurry, so we got together again today.

Surprises and unpredictability, I said. S went up to a light pole – good position, and P took the T-perch. I had not walked sixty feet into the field when P spotted a sitter almost between me and the woman. P landed it and stopped it in a puddle. I grabbed the back legs, got S off with a take-off chickie, and got P off with a chunk of jack. Less than 2 minutes in the field and it was all over. I got the rabbit away live and uninjured, and released it before the camera.

After a jackrabbit catch I would normally call it a day. She wanted more flight shots, and we did our best to accommodate. The field was still full of rabbits, but both birds had the edge taken off their appetites and were less interested. However, there was a smallish rabbit that was moving very slowly – really slowly, just keeping ahead of me. Doubly tempting. With a little cajoling with the lure I brought both birds to the T-perch, and continued to move forward.

The rabbit had tucked itself into a clump of dry grass. By now I knew there had to be something wrong with it. P took a lazy 25-foot flight, landed on it, and the thing didn't even cry out or struggle. Both birds received their take-off pieces and I picked up the rabbit. Not a single mark made by the hawks, but one of its back feet had a wound about a centimeter long and several millimeters wide. It seemed to be a little off in the joint, and just above it the leg was badly swollen, three times its normal thickness. The rabbit's spine, normally imbedded in muscle, was jutting out. I explained the catch was easy because the rabbit was weak and suffering, and it was likely to die even if the birds hadn't caught it. I broke its neck then, and bagged the body.

So for a half-hour of trying to get flight shots, it pretty much sucked. For catching game and doing the morally right things, it was great.

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