Strip malls are the essence of vitriol, rising at the back of my throat. Who do people need several Starbucks or Walgreen’s within blocks of each other? The driver of the truck that was pushing us through this distracting mess of concrete read my mind.
“Lovely isn’t it?”
If I blurred my vision against the skyline, between the squat McDonald’s and Taco Bells, I could see twisted crowns here and there. Letting myself imagine we were in fact cruising through a Oregon white oak forest instead of what had replaced it, my heart rate slowed a bit. I’d driven this road half a dozen times with Simone, my friend, contributor to wingtrip, and pertinent at the time, a Falconer.
Rounding a corner, I looked at a corner lot that used to be full of mature Oregon white oak, now full of tasteless condominiums. They were built right up to the edge of the parcel of land that was our destination. Looping through the cemetery, we parked and geared up.
I’m always embarrassed by how much fussing I typically need to do when embarking on a photographic endeavor. But Simone had me matched, not with gadgets, but with animals to curtail. Otis, the diminutive beagle-jack Russell cross was quivering with excitement. He got a shock collar slipped over his head, not because he’s a bad dog but because we’d be close to a road and he’s prone to disobedience when on the scent of rabbits. Simone had to don her vest, a glove for holding her bird, grab a bloody container of miscellaneous animal bits, and grabbed an ax handle for beating brush. Finally, the man of the hour, Chase the red-tailed hawk, needed to be taken out of his box. All this was done in the parking lot of the funeral home, where, judging by the number of cars, a service was taking place. Simone’s been coming here since she first started as an apprentice and no one has ever said a thing to her about parking here. Then again, would you reprimand a woman holding a hawk?
We started out through the scotch broom and blackberries that are slowly being hacked back by the nearby community college. This is good for the potential of restoring a small bit of native Western Washington prairie but no necessarily great for Simone’s ability to go hawking. We were headed straight for the imposing mass of Himalayan blackberries.
You almost always look regal when carrying a bird of prey on your gloved arm. With Otis bounding behind her, Simone walked partway down the field before removing Chase’s hood. Releasing his jesses, he flew off with a jingle of bells, heading straight for his hunting perch, an adjacent telephone pole.
Falconry is not a hobby, it’s a way of life and something that you dedicate your life to. That’s one of many reasons why I’ve never delved into it myself, despite knowing that if I was interested, I’d have a teacher and support. When it’s hawking season in Washington, Simone is fully committed to flying her birds. She spends her time plowing through trashy lots of blackberries in Western Washington and agricultural fields East of the mountains with Chase, cruising random ponds for her Cooper’s Hawk Hula, and training her other two imprint falcons in between. This is a full time job, not a half-hearted hobby.
One day a few months ago, Simone, our visiting friend Danner, and I were headed up to go birding in the Skagit Flats. Danner and I met at her house around 9AM on a cold December morning, a lazy hour for birders, and apparently even more so for falconers. Moments later Simone burst through the door, soaking wet, holding her Cooper’s Hawk. She was beaming and informed us that Hula had gone for a drake mallard in the middle of a pond. Being at most a third of the weight of a mallard but possesing the notorious tenacity of an Accipiter, she wasn’t going to let go of her quarry. Simone had to crash into the pond, filling her pockets with water (containing her iPhone amongst other items) to keep Hula from drowning herself. This was all recounted joyously, while Danner and I stood and listened incredulously.
I stood by the edge of a blackberries as Simone crashed through, disregarding the brambles clawing at her. Otis, following suit, wiggled beneath the hooped vines and quickly began to whine in excitement. Chase watched from above, calling occasionally, waiting for his partners on the ground to flush prey.
Early on Chase made a dive and narrowly missed a rabbit dashing through an opening. While my intention was to stand back and watch, I quickly got caught up in the hunt. Cars zipped by a few hundred feet away, but easily forgotten as we were all focused, watching to see if Chase spied anything from his perch.
Chase started calling more frequently and soon we heard the scream of another red-tailed hawk. A pair of them circled in, unhappy that Chase was here, probably quite near their nest. They were a distracting element, always on the periphery, taunting and threatening this interloper with bells and loops on his feet. However, despite outnumbering him, they never got close enough to lay a talon on Chase.
Plummeting down and pounding into the ground, Chase was impressive. There were many near misses. I held my breath and I watched him try to find an opening on a rabbit that was frozen mere feet from me. All the while Otis was baying with excitement sounding like he was being killed, not following the trail of a rabbit.
The bloodlust I felt during this hunt is abnormal. I didn’t necessarily wish any of the rabbits we were chasing harm, but my presence inherently meant I did. Intellectually I enjoy the idea of hunting for my own meat and I’ve taken the lives of other animals in order to eat them but this rabbit was going to go to Chase. There’s an ethical cascade of issues that can arise hunting with a bird of prey, especially a bird that was once in the wild, like Chase. But I’m not one to start a debate on the subject of Falconry. I will say this: every Falconer I’ve met is beyond doting of the birds they partner with and respectful of the lives they take. If you find fault with this practice, I suggest you spend some time out in the field with the practitioners before you truly judge.
Our jaunt ended without rabbit blood but we’d had a good ramble though the patch. Simone lured Chase back with tasty cut up quail bits and we wandered back through the oaks, imagining we were in expansive prairie and not a remnant grove. Even with his hood on, he looked regal with beautiful coloration and an inherent power that had been demonstrated all afternoon. Red-tailed hawks may be common in numbers, but their grace in the air is breathtaking and you can’t help but admire every bird seen after hunting.
Yet, I still don’t completely get the dedication. Simone and Otis were covered in scratches, Otis had blood streaks across his face. I remembered that this favorite hunting spot was spitting distance from a cemetery, an wrecking yard, and a housing development. Did I mention that Simone is vegetarian?