Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Capture: Part 1

The first time I ever went hawk trapping I was with two Master Falconers and I was trying to act cool. Outside I kept up the act pretty well. I was mostly quiet, slightly smiling, but generally acting as if it was something mundane like an office carpool trip to an offsite business lunch. I doubt I pulled it off because I was vibrating all over inside my Carhartts. All I kept thinking about was the following two things:

1. I have someone managed to get myself to the point in life where Hawk Trapping is a normal Saturday morning activity.

2. Holy Crow, I could be going home with a bird tonight!

I couldn't help the excitement building up in me. It has taken nearly a year to get to this point in the process. It was early last February when I emailed my state's Department of Environmental Conservation and requested a study/information packet. That simple email was all it took to get a photocopied tome in the mail (my study guide) and forms to fill out asking me to pick a location in the state to take the entrance exam. This was all free, and all just words and paper at the time. I figured if this was something I was serious about I could always take the test and go from there. Taking an exam wasn't going to end with being handed a hawk, but not taking it meant I surely couldn't get started. So I studied. I studied and read books, articles, and watched documentaries. I emailed a friend of a friend who hunted with red tails and I asked if I could tag along. I was starting a dream the only way I knew how: jumping in as if you belonged there all along. So I hit the brush and watched birds dive for rabbits, I studied, and I signed up for a test date in the spring. I was on my way.

I took that exam four months later and scored a 91% (I needed at least an 80% to pass). What followed was forging a relationship with a sponsor, fellow falconers, and starting construction on a mews around my birthday in July. I worked part time at the British School of Falconry this summer and suddenly between the new acquaintances and work, hawks were becoming as normal in my life as horses and sheep. Friends came after work and on the weekends to help build the mews, the weathering area, and what was all paperwork and books last winter was becoming tangible in front of me. As summer wrapped up I finished gathering my supplies and gear. I had a Game Warden inspect the mews and sign off on it as raptor ready. Then it was a matter of waiting for my State and Federal Apprentice Licenses. It took until mid November, but I got them. I was finally ready to start trapping, the last step in preparation and the first step in actually working with a wild bird of prey. All of that had lead to this moment. I was about to head into the fields and forests of Washington County looking for a juvenile red-tail hawk start training.

As we finished loading up the last of the traps, bait, and doubled checked for bottled water and our binoculars - Ed shut the door on the truck and said with confidence, "Well, the only thing holding us back is fear." We drove off looking up.

Sitting in the back seat of an extended cab pickup truck, watching the sky and tree line, while listening to the banter of two old friends was wonderful. I have been new at enough things to know the real learning happens here. Books, videos, and hands-on experience is great but it is the comfortable conversations where I find the real wisdom, warnings, and inside jokes. I listened to them talk, and I asked a lot of questions. I worried at times asking things would sound like I did no research or was more ignorant than my beginner self actually was - but hearing their answers was worth any collateral judgement. You can read about things forever, but hearing an anecdote was gold to me. I can read how-to books forever, what I want is a witness.

We set a few traps for birds we thought might be legal (sometimes it is hard to tell) and on one particular stakeout I asked Ed the last time he went out trapping red tails? He thought about it, and then replied the last time he was out he remembered being in a truck watching a trap just like this, but he was alone. He turned on the radio for company and heard a voice say, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind…"

I beamed. You can't make this stuff up, people.

I didn't catch a bird that day, or even see a legal animal. We saw plenty of red tails but all were adults, and all of them had the signature auburn tail. My bird would be young and have brown and white striped tail, totally different from the matures (which falconers call Hags, short for Haggards - which is the actual term for an adult hawk). It was a little disappointing but not really. I had learned the ropes, and knew what to do if I felt like venturing out on my own. It was a good first step. And it was full of good stories and great people. I felt a part of something I wanted, and that was enough for me.

Over the following weeks I went out trapping more and more. Hours and miles, in every weather, sometimes for long full days of road and branches. Whenever me and Ed had his Jeep loaded up and were about to head out into the wild, he said the same beautiful phrase. "The only thing holding us back was fear." I loved this. It felt like encouragement and permission.

My brain was set to hawk. I could be driving down a highway going 60 MPH and notice a red tail perched on a branch at the edge of a field 400 yards away. They now stood out as bright as polka dots on bar codes. I saw them everywhere. I never saw a juvenile. We all though the same silent thing. It was too late. I got my paperwork too late and the migration had passed.

I started catching birds, and grew as amazed as I grew frustrated. I was getting good at this, learning the timing and the baiting. I had caught, handled, and released two hags at this point. Thanks to the lessons from the backseat, and from tips and tricks learned on the fly, I had the ability to literally take a bird out of the sky. It was an honor and a rush. I learned these birds and how they were put together, how they thought. I knew what it felt like to hold one, to release it up into the sky and have it fly from my arms. If all that testing, building, and paperwork was only for that; it was worth it.

And all this lead up to Sunday night. I was out driving around with company, hoping to capture my bird. My hopes were not too high though as I had not seen a juvenile the entire time I had been out trapping, and I was trapping every single day. I was used to the disappointment and frustration. I did not expect a bird this year at all. But I am far too stubborn to throw in the towel because of negative reinforcement. I'm the dog that is kicked and learns to weave past feet. So, I was still out trying. Friends were with me, supporting me and encouraging me. They had fresh eyes and bright hopes, too. And when a bird was spotted and a car-mate said she saw a barred tail that wasn't red - my body started that excited humming again. This could be it!

Traps were set and we drove off. We returned and saw the bird was on the bait, but not trapped by any means. He just flew away as the car approached. As he took off I saw that tail and finally knew what a juvenile looked like in real life. There was no mistaking it for a hag. This was my bird, exactly what I needed.

So we left again. When we returned, he flew off again. We did this four times and finally we returned the last time to the bait eaten and the bird gone. It was nearly dark and so he was off to roost. I was crestfallen. My friends were, too. But we did all we could and I was encouraged to return in the morning to see if I could get him at first light. After all, he wasn't migrating in the cold dark. He would be there at sun up, and if I was there we might just have our second date.

I returned the next morning with a freshly baited trap and a hot cup of coffee. He was there. Perched on a telephone pole not thirty yards away. I quietly got the trap out of the back of the pickup, set it, and drove away. I watched him in the rearview mirror as the first rays of sunlight filled the valley in South Jackson where both of us dance partners were about to tango.
I gulped.
I prayed.
I smiled.

The only thing holding me back was fear.

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