This is it. The creance has been released. He is free to the world, sitting on that fencepost. If he flies off now he is gone. Everything will have been for nothing. I try to look relaxed as I search for food in my pocket and quickly put it on my glove. I whistle. He sees it. And time slows down to nothing.
Talking of time, it takes fair amount of it to get to this moment. I have been in a feverish daydream running up to this. I have thought about little else but this moment for quite a while. Driving to work. Meetings at work. Sitting at dinner with the kids. He is always there. This moment is always there.
With every step of training Chabhair, my thoughts have always headed here. This intersection. Watching him fly free like one would see a hawk in the wild.
For many, the ultimate goal in falconry is to hunt with their charge, (indeed this is the very definition of falconry) but not for me. I simply want to luxuriate in every millisecond of flight, time and again catching the nuances of movement, the rippling of feathers, the piercing stare at close quarters. I want that in my life. Daily. I want that to be me. To know the movement of those wings as though they are my own. It is getting closer.
Every step towards flying free should be an absolute triumph. Yet it is also a world of worry. You want it to happen, but you’re too nervous to go through with it. Like an interview for a dream job you’d rather not go to so you don’t have to deal with the rejection. It is a gauntlet laid down, that must be met head on and overcome if anything is to be achieved at all.
But imagine he just flew away. Just recognised the opportunity and flew away from me for good. I’m not sure I’d come back from a setback like that. There are so many watching eyes too, many of whom think this falconry lark is a departure from sanity. Any mistake would vindicate them and I’d need to accept the futility and stupidity of my dreams.
The steps following on from those that I took in my garden, a step, a hop and a jump are simply a natural progression – gaining more distance with each flight. Once you have your hawk’s flying weight (the weight he needs to be to fly to you, found through reduction of rations) and he is jumping regularly and quickly to the fist, you can begin to elongate and stretch out the distances of these jumps. Slowly though, steadily. With each successful jump the falconer should look to add a few feet to the next challenge and continue like this until that beautiful moment, when a jump is no longer enough and he needs to use his wings to come to you. Flight.
I shouldn’t simplify this too much however, this was far from a straight forward process and would be most difficult for a beginner to attempt unguided. At times it felt like a battle of wills. Frustration is never far from the surface and can often seep from your pores when you have sat unmoving, willing your hawk to jump, but to no avail. The secret though, especially at such an early point in the partnership, is weight control. If he isn’t moving for you then he isn’t motivated enough. His only motivation is food. Giving him less one day can often provide success the next – should you have a good handle and keen eye on the weight fluctuation of your bird. With experience and detailed daily notes I have created a clear picture and pattern that has helped me identify the weight Chabhair should be to be absolutely responsive.
During every stage to this point Chabhair has been either tethered to his leash or attached to the creance, a lightweight line that attaches to the swivel and jesses of the bird, much like a lead would attach to a dog collar. This gives the bird space to fly whilst stopping any chance of him disappearing over the hedge and the horizon when spooked. Flying at 1lb 14.5 oz Chabhair is, to the best of my knowledge, sharp. This is probably light to average for a male Harris. I have been visiting a farm towards the north of my town for a few days now, the owners graciously granting me access and use of his land. Each of these days the hawk has flown well, but on the creance, from fencepost to the fist, sometimes returning back to the post of his own volition. Day one ended with a 20 foot flight, day two a 35 foot flight. Progress. Now on day 3 I feel the nagging voice of reality speaking to me.
It has to be today.
Once a bird can fly the full 50 feet of a creance he should be trusted loose. Free. There are a few worries with this, I’m sure you can understand. If I leave him on the creance too long this will become his norm, or he may grow irritated by its limitations. But, if it is too early, and he hasn’t made a strong, solid link between quick direct flight and food then he could be gone.
The trick, I’ve read, is to fly them on the creance they day you plan to fly them free, only slipping the creance off unnoticed so that he still believes he is attached. That requires a slight of hand I fear I don’t possess.
The first few flights raise my spirits however. I had given Chabhair a little less to eat last night in the hope that we might fly free today. Hunger should make him eager, ready, focused. Should being the operative word: there is never a guarantee with hawks.
I try 35 feet again. No problem. Direct and vicious. Eyes locked onto the food as though nothing else in the universe exists. 40 feet, the same. I am jubilant as I walk back extending the line out a little more as I go. The creance, a long cotton line, twisted around a short stick sometimes isn’t the easiest tool to manoeuvre with one hand. (I can’t use my gloved hand even when it’s free as this might spook the bird.) Getting ready for 45 feet I look back at Chabhair. He is steady on the fence post, his focus exactly where it should be. On me. My eyes on him, I trip over the creance and lose my footing in the long grass. He doesn’t like that – lifting off quickly into the air he looks to put distance between me and him. On one knee I watch in despair only to see his alight but 15 feet away on another post. I feel sick with nerves. He hasn’t moved again though. What a fool. A small mistake like that is all it takes. He isn’t facing me but is looking off towards the trees that line the western edge of the field, refusing eye contact like a disgruntled child. His trust in me has nosedived.
I need to get back to what he knows, what he expects and I need to do it fast. Normal movement, normal posture. Routine. I search inward for the calmness that I sense he feels in me. I search for that now, put some food on my fist, hold my breath, and hope.
I don’t even look towards him, but rather, as my posture is side on to him, I simply stare ahead as though I’m so at ease I don’t even need to watch for him. Less eye contact, to a hawk, is less confrontation. He tears toward me with so much ferocity and speed I hardly felt ready, him hitting my fist with violence rather than landing upon it. I like this. A very good sign surely, exciting almost. As I walk him back to the fencepost I begin to argue with myself.
He’s never done that before, never been spooked. Never been so sure. This should definitely not be the first time to let him fly free. That last flight was incredible though, it was like my trip never happened. He’s ready, no doubt. He’s had a lot to eat in the last few flights though maybe he isn’t hungry enough to be trusted. But he had less last night he’d probably more eager than ever. Christ.
Your mind is a complicated place: on average it has up to 60,000 thoughts a day and most of mine have been about this very moment for weeks now. I normally – always – take the safe option. Not today though. This wildness, this bird, this ferocity is seeping into me and its chasing away my fears. It is time. Now. No matter what happens.