Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finishing up

I started out the season with an aggressive goal.

35 head of game. That would beat out my all time record by four. I thought at the time it was realistically attainable, if I hunted hard.

I've been a falconer since 1999, hunting squirrels almost exclusively, averaging around 25-30 a season. I hunt two to three times a week. With my growing family - I'm okay with that number

Last weekend was my last hunt for the season. It was planned.

I originally started this blog to toot my hawks horns - so that when breeding time finally happened, people would want to buy my hawks. I have not had them breed yet. I'm not sure why,, but it has been suggested that I might want to try and get them together earlier.

Around here, hawks start pairing up in the next month. During February, I often catch red shouldered hawks in the act. So I decided to put the birds up early, and maybe they will finally breed.

So on Saturday, we went out for our last hunt of the season.

Of course, I forgot my camera.

A pair of red tails were circling over the adjacent field where we were hunting - making me more firm in my decision to be done.

Late season squirrels are tough, and these were no exception. We had a few great chases, but these squirrels were smart - maybe they had been practicing evasive maneuvers with the local red tails.

They knew how to hide behind vine bundles, and run across the ground through the tangles. The hawks had a hard time connecting. Finally, from the top of a pine, the squirrel bailed out, landing in a pile of brush. the hawks couldn't get through, so I started flushing - the hawks gave chase across the forest floor, while I tried to keep up.

Tess did a roll-over into the brush, then pulled back up. She missed.

Then Gonzo dove. The squirrel had tried to squeeze under a downed log, and didn't make it.
I found them with the squirrel half under the log, and Gonzo firmly planted on his back, one talon on the head, the other on his rump.

Quick trade, put the birds back up.

I had about another 20 minutes before I had to head back, maybe time for one more squirrel. It was the last hunt of the season for me, after all.

The next chase was uneventful, except for the fact that this was one wily squirrel. tree to tree, nest, tree, and on, never coming to the ground. Gonzo tore apart two nests, before pulling the squirrel out, boxing with it in mid air, before dropping it.

Tess closed the deal on the ground, crashing into the squirrel.

I seemed like a successful hunt until I saw the bright red blood, it wasn't the squirrels, as it had dripped on the squirrels fur, and stood out in relief against his white belly fur.

I inspected Tess' talons as they held onto the squirrel, they were clean. Traded Tess off, then called up Gonzo.

He had tussled with this squirrel too.

He landed on the glove, great fist response, acting like he was ready to hunt.

His middle toe on the right talon was leaking blood, but it didn't look too bad, until he shifted his feet. The middle toe canted dangerously at the last joint.

It was a bite, and it was deep. The toe was pointing in an unnatural direction.

In 10 plus years hunting squirrels - this was only my second bad bite - and it was in a bad place.

I rushed the birds home, got Gonzo in the house, and immobilized the foot. I have done this type of doctoring before, and I am hopeful that Gonzo will keep the toe. Though he may lose the talon.

Disappointing - to say the least.

We ended the season with 57 head of (furry) game - my most successful ever. The hawks have performed amazingly all season long.

They have done things that I wouldn't have believed just a year ago.

Now I have to worry about that bite. I'll keep monitoring it.

For the next week or so, the birds will be getting fat in their respective cages.

Tess is already there.

Soon, I'll let them get together and cross my fingers.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Meet - Part III

Last Saturday ended with us heading out to a large farm field to watch Ben's falcon fly. He didn't catch anything with his little tiercel, but the flights were spectacular. The day before, he had gotten a double on hooded merganser.

Then a business meeting.

Sunday morning dawned bright and cool. Temps would be rising quickly. We met at McDonalds and headed out to fly Arnaud's merlin.

I am a merlin virgin - I'd never seen one fly. We ended up at a giant farm field with a shallow overgrown ditch running down the center.

Arnaud unhooded the handsome little bird and held him aloft. He roused, and bobbed his head, getting a feel for the lay of the land, then launched.

Once he was airborn, zipping around like a heat seeking missile, it was our job to run through the fields to flush game.

It worked. Pretty soon birds were popping out of the grass like popcorn, and the little falcon was stooping repeatedly. If he missed, he'd turn and wait for the reflush.

Running, ho-ing, and beating at the grass was exhausting - and since the this field held standing water, had potential to create dampness. Arnaud fell in, and I stepped into a hole almost to my knee.

We worked our way down the grass, finally bagging one bird near the end. The merlin snagged it on the wing, carrying it a little ways past. He hopped around in the grass for a bit, then stashed it under a thicker patch of weeds. He hopped up and took to the air again, waiting for another flight.

This was an awesome little bird. We grabbed another one out of the air, and I'm pretty sure he would have kept flying, but we had harris hawks to fly. Arnaud apologized later about the birds lack of "style". I didn't care about its style - he was a cool little rocket, that knew its job. Fun fun.

We moved to another field - one we had been to earlier this weekend. Richard got out his pair of harris hawks. Both birds were wild birds - one trapped in Texas, the other in Arizona.

The birds worked well together, and followed like they were supposed to.

I've been wondering a lot about the differences between the hunting habits of wild caught and captive bred birds. There doesn't seem to be much.

We lined up and coursed a field for these two birds. They followed - we popped a rabbit and the birds followed it from the air. We closed in.

Ho Ho - the rabbit moved and the hawks made pass after pass, before the final squeal of success.

Well done.

Chip showed up with his harris hawks. We got out his and my two and put them all up together again.

I admit, I love having all four birds up together. They work well together and I love the chaos.

We tromped through the woods and saw no game. I was getting nervous that the birds might get bored and start to bicker.

It never happened.

We finally found squirrels in a patch of huge old hardwoods at the back of the property. This tree was so big, it would have taken ten of us holding hands to surround it.

This squirrel knew every nook and cranny of the tree, and the chase was a chess match. One squirrel vs four hawks.

Each branch was as large as a normal tree - and the squirrel would hide over, under, and around these branches. The squirrels strategy was brilliant, until he tried to switch trees. The hawks pressured it to the point where it leapt, and Eli grabbed it.

We traded off and moved to the next giant tree. We chased a few more squirrels, Gonzo took one of them, Eli one other, and ended the day with three more in the bag.

There was a lot of running, falling, laughing - and great chases from both the hawks and the squirrels.

I left the meet with three squirrels that I could claim and a rabbit (plus the one I caught on the way there).

We took a picture of a partial head count for the weekend.

Not too bad.

A very successful weekend. On the way home, I had plenty of time to review what I wanted for the rest of the season, and revised my goals.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Time to Celebrate

I hope you will all join me in celebration! I will be doing my part tomorrow morning.

It's Squirrel Day. Really

COUNCIL BLUFFS — Today is National Squirrel Appreciation Day.

To celebrate, residents are encouraged to nibble food furiously, climb trees and appear to be scared of everything. Well, not really.

But it really is a day to celebrate an animal whose black incarnation is celebrated by Council Bluffs

“We certainly appreciate squirrels, every day,” said Kathy Fiscus, director of leisure marketing for the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce.

Fiscus mentioned Chipper, the black squirrel that serves as the official mascot of the city.

“That’s our way of embracing the black squirrel. It’s a way to introduce some natural history to children in a fun and positive way,” Fiscus said.

Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in Asheville, N.C., established National Squirrel Appreciation Day in 2001, according to “Celebration of the event itself is up to the individual or group,” she said, “anything from putting out extra food for the squirrels to learning something new about the species.”

Today also is National Hugging Day, though a combination of the two holidays is not advised.

I will be hugging them - as will Tess and Gonzo. If you get a chance to celebrate, let me know!

Thanks Kathy for sharing the link!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meet - part II

During lunch on our first day of the meet - we reorganized our groups, set things up and got ready to go. Chip, who organized the whole thing, comes up to me and says.

"I wanna go hunting with you."

So we did. It started out with his red tail. Chip hunts with lots of birds, and uses them for abatement as well, and all his birds hunt well.

The red tail was an accomplished hunter and proved it on this outing. With a dozen spectators the red tail chased down and cornered a squirrel in short order.

In a mix of tall pines and hardwoods, the red tail stalked the squirrel as it tried to sneak away and up a tree. The hawk soon cornered it 60 feet up at the top of a pine with no where to go.

He jumped.

The red tail folded and dove. The squirrel hit first, bounced in the leaf litter, and the hawk nailed it on the rebound. One down.

We put the red tail up to get out the harris hawks. Tess and Gonzo got tossed up into the tree and Chip got out his two tiercels - Rudy and Eli.

We've done this before, hunted with all four hawks at once - and it almost isn't fair to the squirrels. What generally results is bedlam - controlled chaos.

The hawks start out working as individuals, but by the end of the hunt, they were coordinating. Eli was the stealth hawk. He tends to wait lower in the trees and wait for the squirrels to bail out. He is very successful with this technique.

The other three hawks will pursue, pushing the squirrel into a mistake. The birds swipe at the squirrel, scraping them from the side of the tree, but the squirrel will circle, corkscrewing around to get away from the hawks.

One squirrel finally found itself at the tippy top of a scrawny oak, clutching on to a spindly limb. Four harris hawks perched around him at each point of the compass.

I can only imagine what the squirrel was thinking.

Multiple chases ensued, Eli took (finished) two of the chases, Tess one and the last one was taken by Gonzo, and was notable.

Gonzo drowned the squirrel in a narrow brook. I have to wonder if he learned this from Tess. Hard to believe it was only coincidence since three of the last five squirrels had been drowned.

We ended our hunt with four squirrels for the afternoon - my take for the whole day was three squirrels and a rabbit, and there was one more day to go (gotta love Sunday Hunting).

Last picture is by Jimmy Campbell, previous are by Paula B Page.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Some meet Pictures

Before we move on to more hunting stories - I have to say I enjoy meets. It gives falconers a chance to catch up - and it allows me to see lots of birds that I don't normally see. That's Arnaud up above, with the merlin we trapped this fall.

This is Bobby with his Kestrel.

Anytime you can get a bunch of falconers together to share stories and knowledge it has got to be a good thing.

Richard's passage harris - right after it caught a rabbit.

Red Tail on a Squirrel.

And Ben's Peregrine. He got a double on ducks. Great day for him!

Falconry Meet Part I

I just got back from one of our annual falconry meets. This one was across the state towards Raleigh. I left after work on Friday - but I didn't get far.

As I was crossing the bridge towards the mainland I realized that I was going to be passing right by my little rabbit hole by the bay.

My hawks were already in the car, so.....

Yeah - I stopped. I had a four and a half hour car ride, so how much could this little detour set me back?

It is a small field so I only took out one bird. Gonzo this time. I crashed briers for a while before we got a rabbit moving. Gonzo hasn't seen many rabbits this year, but he followed and pointed like a champ.

It wasn't long before he folded off a branch and dropped like a stone to the base of a tree. I secured the rabbit and gonzo stepped off.

I don't have to trade him off any more. Once I get a hold of whatever he catches, he will step off and wit for you to throw a tidbit for him. It makes transfers really easy.

At one point this weekend, another falconer went in to secure a squirrel that Gonzo had caught (he had my permission). When Gonzo stepped off of it, the falconer looked at me, incredulous. "What do I do now?" He asked. I just laughed. "kill the squirrel. Then toss a tidbit."

It really has gotten that easy.

Back to my trip out - we weren't even to the meet and already we had one in the bag. We wandered for a bit more, chased a squirrel and a few more rabbits, but then I had to get back on the road.

After the four hour trip, we checked into the hotel.

The next morning - we met at McDonalds and divided up the hunting parties. I was flying with James, another harris hawker in the morning. Additionally, we had about a dozen preteen spectators tagging along to watch. We weren't thrilled with the idea, but it got the youngsters out in the woods and that is always a good thing.

What made this particularly interesting for me is that his bird was a passage, trapped in Arizona, just this fall. I've been curious about the differences between passage birds, and captive bred ones ( as I may have the opportunity to go and try and trap this fall).

His bird was well mannered and did everything a hawk was supposed to (considering all the extra people, the hawk did great). No kill on that flight, but the young hawk did fine.

Next we got out my birds - they did great ( I may be biased) We quickly lit upon a squirrel. They chased him across the line of young pine trees, until the squirrel couldn't stand the heat and bailed.

What followed was probably the longest foot chase I have ever seen - maybe 500 yards - through the yong pine trees, with hawks falling from the sky like bombs. The squirrel would weave in and out of the cover of the pines and the hawks just could not connect. Finally, the squirrel made it to a large oaks and started to scamper up the side. Tess Scraped it from the side, dropped it and Gonzo nailed it on the ground.

By that time, we needed to head out and meet the rest of the club for lunch, we headed back to the cars, hawks following behind. I got the birds to pose for a few pictures - short flight to the fist from the trees, that kind of thing, when over the hill comes a coyote.

Running in front of him is a rabbit. The coyote stops, but the rabbit continues down the road and disappears in the brush about 15 feet away. I had Tess half way in the giant hood.

I look at James - he looks at me - What the heck. I toss tess up into a tree, and the chase is on.

Five minutes later, Tess folds in mid air, does a wing over and crashes, grabbing the marshrabbit by the rump.

Two in the bag, and more hunting after lunch. Can't wait.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Amazing - or Tess learns a new trick

My birds ROCK!

It was one of those days. I wasn't planning on hunting today, but bad weather is rolling in and I didn't know if we'd be able to hunt until the coming weekend.

Heck - I dashed home from work and loaded all my gear as quickly as I could and got to the field by 3:40. I ha to coach wrestling practice this afternoon, so I needed to be out of the field by 4:30. Not much time.

If we could get in a flight or two, maybe snag a squirrel, it would be time well spent.

I tossed Gonzo, then Tess into the trees. I closed the bed of the pick up - and the birds were already stalking something. I followed them into the trees - and saw the first squirrel hiding on the opposite side of the tree as the hawks. I ho - ho. The squirrel bolts, crosses, but is quickly snagged off a short branch.

A fun chase, but quick. We had time for doubles.

This particular spot is close to home and I have hunted it a lot this year. I hunt a series of ridges, and in between the ridges are the bottoms that are pocked with shallow pools of water. Last year, this area was all under water. With all the hunting I've done here this year ,I keep waiting for the day when I don't find any more squirrels.

Today wasn't it. Five more minutes we had another squirrel on the run. He crossed from ridge top to partially fallen tree, then crossed from branch tip to branch tip across a wide but shallow pool.

The hawks were hot on his trail.

The squirrel made it to the other side, spiraled down a tree and popped into a hole about the size of a jar lid in the side.

That was it, or so I thought.

Tess came barreling in at full tilt (this was cool) his talons stretched out at full length in front of him.

Both talons plunged into the hole, her wings stretched out, holding her in position.

What the....

Then Tess starts rowing her wings backward. No way.

Then Tess plucks the squirrel out of the hole, both feet clamped to its head, the hawk spirals to the ground.

That was awesome - but it gets weirder.

I was on the wrong side of the pond, though it was only a short walk around, but my vantage point was perfect. As Tess spiraled to the ground, she adjusted her wings and changed her trajectory to land along the edge of the water.


I stumbled around the edge of the water, pushing the cane brake out of the way. Tess was in a clearing, holding the squirrels head under the water. Tess would squeeze. pump, pump. Let the squirrel up for a moment, then push its head back under.

She had the little fur ball completely under control, so I popped a picture.

I would have called it a fluke, if not for on the way back to the truck the exact same thing happened.

I was trying to get back to the truck in time to get home, changed, and then to practice, when the hawks checked off for an extended chase. it wasn't really that long, but in the end, Gonzo scraped the hawk off the side of the tree, dropped it to where Tess snatched it out of the air. Adjusted to the head, then coasted down tot he water, where she plunged the squirrels head under water.

I got to her as fast as I could, but the squirrel was already drowned when I got there.

We had 45 minutes of hunting. Nonstop.

It was amazing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Late Season Squirrels

They're smarter.

After hitting them hard over the two week Christmas break, I gave the hawks a week to rest and heal. In the wild, they would never get time off, but they also wouldn't be specializing in hunting quarry as difficult as squirrels.

Their feet are nicked up and looking like the feet of true squirrel hawks. I tend to down play bites. I know they will happen, and it is always a risk. Most bites will be superficial nicks and cuts, but I am sure the hawk feels them.

The squirrels know their escape routes now. They don't feed far from holes. Some of these squirrels, I'm pretty sure, we have chased before as I have hunted this same spot multiple times this year.

These woods are mature maritime forest. A mix of pock marked hardwoods, interspersed with giant loblolly pine trees. What was once drifting sand dunes is now the loamy earth from which these trees spring.

The dunes are now steeply sloped hills and every chase is a work out. We seem to find the squirrels at the tops of the ridges, but when they bail from the tree tops, they head downward, like they are on a sled for freedom. They scamper up a tree at the bottom of the slope, then fly across the treetops to the top of the ridge again.

The same pattern happened over and over until the lowly falconer was left panting and heaving on the ground.

One squirrel blistered down the hill and disappeared at the bottom. I stumbled, slid, and fell down after him, holding onto trees for support.

When I got there, the hawks were waiting for me. Their eyes scolding me with my snails pace.

They both sat lower in the trees, not looking up. They were telling me squirrel had gone to ground.

I surveyed the area and a little stump of a branch was sticking off of the main trunk of a red bay tree. I could see that it was hollow, but not much bigger than my forearm and just at ground level.

I stomped over to it and peered into the top of the stump - and there was mister critter, staring back at me. He wasn't moving.

The hawks waited overhead - finally, I could be a useful part of the team. I shook the stump. I thumped the stump.

The squirrel stared stoically back at me. He knew the danger, he wasn't moving.

Finally, I kicked the stump, and heard it splinter. That was too much. The squirrel popped out the top like a jack in the box and both hawks plummeted, snagging it between them.

We ended up with two squirrels that day, each one was a challenge. This time of the year it gets harder and harder to catch each one. We'll see what the next few weeks bring.