A Hunting Hawk Part 2: Playing Dead, Plain Stupid

Interest has been piqued. On both our parts. The chases are now becoming more regular. Quicker. And a variety of quarry I can’t believe.

Now, obviously, my male Harris couldn’t catch a deer like the one he flew after. But size isn’t discouraging him that’s for sure. Flights at rabbit, fox, mice and badgers are soon happening over the course of a few weeks. There is little primal desire though from Chabhair. He is simply having fun, playing with the wind as it runs through his feathers. For me though, his flights above the river and from tree to tree has turned my small valley into a wonderland. Chabhair’s new want to chase and harry has awoken the glen and animals I have never seen before.

I am beginning to get the peculiar sense that I am becoming part of the landscape. Not a visitor, but an intrinsic facet of it, like an animate hawthorn or watchful oak. I am engaged, immersed even, in this little place. I can feel it seeping into me and I it. My eyes begin to notice more of my new world with each visit, working differently, finding the tiniest movement and smallest detail.

Here I am not longer removed from the natural world. I have been accepted into it. I am at peace.

This world is live and real and utterly engaging. It is, for want of better comparison, my own Attenborough documentary and hyper real HD. No longer any seismic disconnect between the bright, blunt colours of my TV and the nuanced shades of reality.

I have been monitoring Chabhair’s weight in relation to his flights and behaviour and I see the potential for change. I have dropped his intake for a few days, providing marginally less each day. Still nervous but learning, all of this new, I am surprised with the immediate difference. By day five he is one ounce lighter than before. He is hungrier, both literally and figuratively. His drive and focus magnified exponentially. It is like I have switched him on, given him new batteries. His eyes have taken on a darker, more demonic shade.

I am changing too. Our togetherness is better than it has ever been, our senses are beginning to merge. It occurs to me that I’m thinking like a bird.

The valley’s northern side is pock marked with burrows. Mostly rabbit warrens, but with larger predators abounding too. I have been noticing that the later I go out in the evening the more alive the countryside is. The more rabbits I see. My mental map of the warren system that surrounds me improves with each visit. Unconsciously, I push my flying times back, closer to dusk and the amber glow. This is a dangerous move. A bird flying in the gloaming is one easily lost. Yet the waning sun warms my bones and settles me. I feel most at home in the fading light and so does the hawk.

For the last couple of months I have been walking down into the valley through large empty fields, crossing diagonally to get access to the steep hillsides that cradle the Avon. Our daily routine as we drop towards the water is a series of arcing flights, taking advantage of the thermals that flow through the valley. Taking small pieces of meat I reward flights that show improvement, pushing those burnished red wings higher and further each passing day.

Having your bird, floating in a thermal, motionless, happy and focused one hundred feet above you is freedom encapsulated. I am there with him. I feel the same breeze. I breathe the same contentedness. The mindfulness of nature is so clear.

On the wing Chabhair makes the discovery of a series of four burrows on the eastern tree line of the field. The interest in thermals disappeared immediately. And his focus sharpened further in that instant. The hunt was on. With keen eyes and murderous intent.

A dead oak sits to our left as we normally enter the field. Routine takes Chabhair there every day. In days gone past he waggled his tail and stared down into the valley to peruse his descent, now it is staging post for attack. Intent instead of content. He settles here again as it is close to the burrows, but far enough to mask his true intentions.

I was shocked at his true speed in a real chase.

He has been holding back. The acrobatics I have seen, it turns out, are a mere fraction of his true, raw potential!

He is tearing through the sky. Wings pulled back in a ‘v’, he throttles toward the second of the four burrows at the far end of the field from his staging post. Ever downward, getting closer to the ground. Within spitting distance of the burrow he pulls up, gains height for all of a second and its only then I see the grey brown fluff of the target below. Wings tucked in, he bends round behind a hawthorn tree, and torpedoes home.

From my position across the field, all is quiet. No movement. No sight of bird or rabbit.

I was running by this point. Fear, excitement and adrenaline all pumping through me. I was out of breath quickly despite being fit. My legs feel wobbly. It struck me that the moment was here and that I wasn’t as prepared for it as I thought. The responsibility of death makes me queasy, uneasy but darkly euphoric as I reach the fence that straddled the old hawthorn.

I can see the rough shape of him through the branches. Unmoving and on the ground. I’m almost drunk with adrenalin as I try to clamber over the fence and my boot catches on the wire. I topple pathetically into the next field atop a mole hill, the soft mud crumbly under my palm as I look up to see what I already knew.

Wings outstretched, mantling, he was sitting on a young rabbit. His eyes raged at me as he breathed heavily, looking for all the world like some unearthly dragon.

There was no sound from his prey. It must have taken me sixty seconds to cross the grass and topple over the fence as I did. Combining that time with the silence I figured that the moment I feared the most had already passed. It was already dead.

When a hawk takes a rabbit, all of the manuals will tell you to do three things. Approach slowly and lowly, crouching down on your haunches, glove first. Edging in towards the kill, the bird will likely mantle – bringing its large wings round to cover and protect its food – and an indicator that it doesn’t welcome your advances. Slowly, then, a falconer should have two items ready – a chick to distract it from the prey and a cover to put over the prey to help the bird forget that its there. Out of sight out of mind. With a first kill though it is standard practice to let the hawk eat well from what it has caught as a reward for its endeavours. My excitement had me caught between these two options and I shuffled closer, stupefied by the scene and the emotion without thinking too much.

The rabbit’s leg started to move. A death spasm I presumed. Chabhair didn’t look too comfortable though. Unsure, almost, as he looked down. It was as though he knew he had followed the correct procedure in chasing it but had no idea how to proceed.

In my continued, regrettable haste I readied a chick on my gloved hand and, getting closer, unnerved my hawk. He tried to move away, and I thrust my fist into his view, garnished with chick, and blocking his vision of what he’d only just caught himself. Moving my fist upwards towards his chest Chabhair instinctively stepped up onto my fist to eat.

The rabbit, previously dead, flew across the grass and was down a hole in a heartbeat. It had been alive the whole time. I felt a little dizzy. Playing dead. Elated, proud of my hawk, ecstatic that the bunny had survived, I am confounded by its escape but mostly just enraptured by the chase.

Chabhair watched the bunny disappear then looked at me with distrust. My interference had cost him. Playing dead. Plain stupid.

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