The light took on an amber color as the sun faded and hung low behind the surrounding mountains. Hunting this terrain is beautiful, with the diversity of hardwood species and the rolling hills, but also exhausting. This particular property is an old gold mine, with valleys scattered throughout and deep holes whittled out here and there. Many a time, I would run to the top of a hill, only to see the bird chase into an adjacent tree, which meant I had to run down into a valley and then back up another hill. Still, it’s hard to beat the sight of the winter light filtering down through the bare canopy of old growth trees.
As I walked, I kept tabs on my partner above, hearing her bells tinkling as she flew. There was a pause and all of a sudden, I hear the bells in front of me. I look up and see a squirrel making a beeline for a big limb of an old oak tree. It’s always a bonus to catch a slip heading back to the truck. HO! HO! HO!
I beat the base of the tree, which was much too tall and big to shake and try to make as much ruckus as I can to get the squirrel moving. Thistle being in the tree was intimidation enough…the squirrel flipped it’s tail violently for a few moments before attempting to jump to a neighboring tree. Thistle sees this and leaps with him.
In a tumbling blur of squirrel and hawk, they burst from the tree, the squirrel falling like a rock to the ground and Thistle folding up like a missile in pursuit through a fine mist of fur that’s raining down from the limb where she hit him. The squirrel reaches the ground a few seconds sooner than her and makes a mad dash for cover. At this point, I think this chase is over.
Hawks typically get one good run at squirrel on a bail from the tree, using the potential energy and momentum they build-up taking a high perch. If a red tail makes a run at something on or close to the ground, it takes them time to ladder back up to a perch to make another stoop. Usually, by then, the game is to cover and it’s just a miss.
I am watching the squirrel put increasing distance between us down a steep hill but I don’t see Thistle hit the ground. At the last second, she pulls up and uses the energy she would have crashed the ground with to gain a few feet of altitude and make another run at the squirrel fleeing on the ground. Miss two. At this point, I am SURE this chase is over. We were lucky to get a bonus slip, lucky she pursued on the bail from the tree and to get a second shot at hitting game in the fading light was more luck that anyone could expect.
But Thistle doesn’t commit to the crash. She pulls up again, gains a few feet of altitude and sharpens her aim. Third swoop is the charm. She perfectly calculates the lead she needs to hit the running squirrel. I see her roll up on the ground with the squirrel in a ball of fur and fury, and watch as red feathers and a squirrel tail tumble a few feet together down the hill then come to rest together in a pile. It’s at this moment, as I watch from my vantage point at the top of the hill, I realize I am cheering and have tears running down my face.
I make into where Thistle had her dinner caught, dispatched the squirrel quickly and let her dine. At that moment, sitting in the cool twilight watching my bird enjoy the fruits of our labor, I snapped a picture of her on the kill and then a picture of just my face. It’s a terrible picture of me, but looking at it, I remember exactly how the hunt ended and the emotions I felt that day.
Is forty squirrels in a season a special feat? No, not at all. Am I trying to brag on my skills or on my bird? No. Am I trying to prove something? Nope. The face you see there is pride. Not the boastful, pompous kind, but the kind of pure pride when you feel like you did your best, invested your time and commitment and earned something from your investment. There were people that told me I wouldn’t make it in this sport. There were times that I felt that way too…and some days, I still do wonder if I have what it takes. But in that moment, I truly felt pride and realized that I dearly love this sport. I don’t love my bird (well, I do, but don’t tell her that). One day, Thistle will got back to the wild and I will start a new chapter with a fresh passage red tail. I don’t love the bloodshed. I’m really not a big fan of killing things. I don’t love all of the people involved in the sport that I meet. In fact, falconers are some of the oddest, weirdest people on the planet. But I truly, deeply, madly love falconry. In that moment that day, I said a little prayer, thanking God, not for a successful season, but for letting me discover the sport and for giving me the ability to be so passionate about it.
Thistle went on that season to kill many more squirrels. But, it’s not about the head count or the trophy shots. It’s about the feeling the sport stirs in my soul. It’s about the fact that in the storm of chaos that is falconry, I find order and peace in my life. It’s about the bond you create with special people who share your passion. It’s about the commitment you make to carry on a 4000-year-old sport to the best of your abilities. It’s about finally fitting in your own skin, un-apologetically.
#39 and #40 that we caught that day pictured below. My dorkie face above.