I lost my good female Harris Hawk “Martha” the other evening. It was five o’clock and the rabbits were just starting to pop their little heads out into the evening sunshine to feed. Just like I had done hundred times before, I unloaded herself from the jeep, quietly closed over the door and snuck over the brow of a certain little hill to let her see the rabbits feeding below. The hill dropped steeply down to a laneway and there was a thick old hawthorn hedge bordering the grassy field where rabbits were plentiful. As soon as we peered over the hill a half-grown bunny high-tailed in across the lane toward cover and off she went in pursuit.
It was a typical downward glide flight. A couple of strong flaps to get herself in motion, then she set her wings and glided steadily on a direct course for her target. Not the most exciting of flights but it can be very effective, as from the rabbit’s point of view there is very little moving to catch its eye, and then it’s nearly too late as the hawk is upon it and the rabbit must act extremely fast if it wants to survive, and this is exactly what happened in this case. The rabbit ran, she tried her best, but she missed and I saw her standing on the ditch by the lane under a large sycamore tree.
And this is where things went wrong.
Usually when she misses a rabbit, she would rouse, or shake her feathers back into place, and fly back up the hill to me. It is a steep hill as I mentioned and she has to stop at least once on the way back as there is usually a downdraught that hinders her. As all the rabbits in view had already scarpered for cover, I decided to drive down, pick her up and continue along the lane in the hope of a more successful flight.
But when I turned the truck and drove down to meet her, she was gone.
She would usually fly back in the jeep window to me, but as there was no sign of her, I stepped out and turned off the engine so I could hear her bell.
I walked along the ditch, whistling as I went.
I found a gap and climbed over the barbed wire fence and checked the other side of the hedge.
I stood and listened for the tinkle of a bell, knowing she could not be too far away.
I walked the length of the ditch and up along the hill where she had often caught rabbits before. The grass was long now and could easily hide a hawk but there was still no bell to be heard. The nearest ditch was a hundred yards away on the other side of the field so I took out my lure and swung to call her back.
Then I heard crows. Mostly rooks which sounded upset at something and then I heard the familiar raucous calls of both hooded crows and magpies joining in. It has always been my theory that when these crows gang up together it is something well worth investigating. But the trouble here was that they were mobbing something hundreds of yards away on
the other side of an eight foot high perimeter fence nicely topped off with a double row of barbed wire. And on the other side of this fence was a stud farm, where beautiful Arabian horses gambolled and grazed in the evening sunshine. As I mentioned earlier, Martha is my “good” Harris Hawk, probably the best I have ever flown, but there is one thing that she absolutely loathes, and that is horses of any kind.
I remember once she landed on a tree in a ditch and right below her on the other side, unseen by me, was a donkey that suddenly brayed its heart out and frightened Martha enough that she took off and would not return to me for half an hour.
So there I was peering through tiny gaps in the perimeter fence and not being able to see a thing, so I brought the jeep around, climbed up of top of it and swung the lure.
There was only one thing I could do and that was to drive the two miles around and find the closest point on the road to where I thought she was, or at least to where the crows were busy noisily mobbing something.
So I took note of the landscape, particularly the electric pylons which lucky enough gave me a good landmark to work with, and hurried around to the place in question where they crossed the road on the other side of the farm, and guess what I found?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing!
Even the crows had stopped their chattering and had moved on. By this stage I was starting to worry and went over everything in my head that could have gone wrong.
I had seen her miss the rabbit, had not seen her fly but I had been turning the jeep and driving down to meet her.
Had she taken off again from the ground, flown the two hundred yards up and over the high fence, across the field to where I heard the crows?
Had she time to?
Maybe she had but it was so unlike her that I thought it strange.
I phoned a friend that lived nearby and he came to give me a hand. Now if you have ever looked for a hawk by yourself, with darkness looming and the thought that if she has caught another rabbit and is still on the ground when the foxes are hunting during the night, you know that another pair of eyes and ears and a fresh outlook can be only a good thing.
But it’s not just that. It is having company to stop despair from setting in. The thoughts of losing her were bad enough without thinking about a fox finding her in the darkness, still on her rabbit and chomping both her and the rabbit remains.
So with darkness fast approaching and having searched for five hours, I finally decided to call it a day. It was a beautiful evening; even my own personal black cloud over me could not hide that fact. There was still no breeze as I had a final look along the lane, under the sycamore tree where I had last seen her. She knew the area this side of the perimeter fence well and as I approached the tree for the last time, I had a mental image of her sitting there waiting for me, with a full crop of freshly eaten rabbit and one foot raised in contentment.
But it was not to be.
I drove home with that black cloud hovering over me, thinking everything through yet again, wondering if I had overlooked the obvious and hoping that suddenly it would all come clear to me what exactly had gone wrong and where I would find her. I thought too about the amount of hours and days, months and years I had spent training and flying her; of simple misses and the spectacular catches she had made.
I have other hawks; I even have other Harris hawks, but none like her, not one I would miss half as much as I was going to miss her.
I barely slept that night and after only a couple of hours of unsettled sleep I set off again to meet the dawn and resume the search. I knew I was in for a soaking as the dew was heavy on the grass and the sun had not risen enough yet to burn it off. I knew also that I would trudge the same paths and search the same places as I had the evening before and I also knew that with every step over the same ground, despair would engulf me more and more. The longer she was out and the longer I had no clue where she was, the deeper and blacker my mood would become. The more time elapsed giving her time to put more distance between us, the higher the chances were that I would never see her again.
I drove to the top of the hill where I had flown her from, looked out over the misty early morning landscape and said to myself “F**k, she could be anywhere!”
But I had to continue searching regardless.
The obvious place to start was where I had last seen her. So with the sun rising and my mood sinking I drove down the hill and along the lane.
Before I even parked up I could see she was in the sycamore tree; a black silhouette in the morning sun. Oh happy days!
I am not a jumpy around kind of guy; never one to shout or scream with joy, throw fists into the air and make up victory dances on the spot. But if I was, believe me that’s where the dances of jubilation would have taken place; in a back lane at dawn with a well fed hawk as an audience.
I called her down, and gave her some food as a treat, though she could barely fit in another bite. Even after her thirteen hours of feeding since I had last set eyes on her, she couldn’t fit in another thing and had a crop of food on her which gave her chest a look that the girls of the Hefner mansions would be proud to bear. Her crop was full to absolute capacity.
That she had caught a rabbit was obvious. But had she caught it immediately after I had seen her miss one?
Had she flown up the sycamore tree and dived on one below, which is what I think happened. But why had I not heard the bell in the ensuing scuffle?
Had she spotted a rabbit in the ditch below that was already dead maybe?
Had she jumped up the branches of the tree in the dark to be found the next morning or had she come back from somewhere, looking for me with a full crop? I doubted it, but what were the crows mobbing with such enthusiasm a minute after I lost her?
Anyway I have her back now and I will never know. I can only give an educated guess.
If I had not made such an effort I might never have seen her again.
Maybe it’s what falconry is all about, or anything else we put our time into; when things go good, life is brilliant, but when things go wrong, it really does feel like the end of the
Another day in the life of an Irish falconer!