Operation Desert Dove – Sunday, June 1 2003

Some time ago I took down the archives for the original falconry blog, Operation Desert Dove. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been blogging about the same peregrine for seven years, but there you go. I imagine only those who have been here since the very beginning realize that LIFT is actually very much based on that blog I began when there weren’t very many journals online and I was frequently asked why I was bothering. I was bothering because that blog was printed out and placed in a binder that kept me true to my story. So this week’s falconry flashback is that first and now long ago post….

Baby Feathers

Baby Feathers

What the hell was I thinking?

Eight years ago when I trapped my first redtail I sat in her muse (er- I mean mews. That’s a Freudian type if I ever made one..) I sat looking in her astonished eyes and thinking, why would anyone buy a falcon when they could trap a spectacular creature like this? Of course I wasn’t a full-blown addict yet, so I didn’t get that when I realized I could fly a redtail again (whenever I wanted) things would have to progress. I guess they have.

It was the merlin did it. I should hvae never flown that merlin last season. I told myself, “one little merlin isn’t going to turn you into a longwinger.” I’m a DIRTHAWKER. I would never trade in my blue lightsaber for a red one. NEVER!

Well, meet Anakin, my tiercel anatum/cassini peregrine. My name is Rebecca and I’m a… a…. I’m a Longwinger.

I have say, he is one sexy falcon. If you are going to the darkside, you may as well go with good company. I must have spent an hour last night just watching him preen. I meant to go to bed, but I couldn’t bear to turn out the lights when he was still putting his feathers in order.

Hard to believe I just paid $1000 for a falcon! What the hell was I thinking? I am going to have to fly him free, give him a chance to fly away, break a wing, crack his pretty little head. Wait. It get’s worse. What do I know about flying a peregrine? I’ll probably embarrass myself and my falcon. If I want company and advice in the field, everyone gets to watch me being an apprentice all over again. And I just did that last season and the season before and…. Huh. I guess being a newbie doesn’t end anyway, does it?

Oh hell, I guess I better get busy sewing a lure.

Anakin was born March 24th, pulled from the chamber May 19th and came home with me May 28th. Today he weighs 510 grams and is flying the length of his leash.

The Knife

photo by Dan Kit on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

photo by Dan Kit on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

There is a click as the knife locks open and even this is enough to raise the hackles on my red-tailed hawk’s neck. Her talons tighten on the already stilled rabbit and I know she’s thinking of my hands pulling her prize away, preparing to reposition her talons between my finger bones to make her painful point. I turn my head and watch her from the corner of my eye so that we aren’t two predators competing through a stare. I don’t want the rabbit and I wouldn’t win anyway. I only want to help, but I have no way to explain other than showing her.

She’s earned her meal, but I can’t let her eat the whole thing. I’m hoping to fly her tomorrow. So she needs to have some appetite. Two front legs, the heart and lungs will hold her until then. The heart and lungs are the most rewarding part, but I have to break in for her, guide her choice of meal.  I ruffle the rabbit’s fur with my left hand, easing my way to the hawk’s feet, hoping she doesn’t grab me while the knife waits in my right hand. I think while I wait that I’ve carried this knife a long time and yet this will be the first time I’ve ever used it, but then, this isn’t the purpose I had in mind for it.

I paid $150 for my Spyderco, smooth silver, heavy and cold, with a round hole in the arch of the blade. The hole is a place for traction so that the knife will open smoothly and quickly. The clip on the outside is ideal for hanging off a belt, but tight enough to hook on my Doc Martens. It fits comfortably behind my ankle bone, snug between sock and leather, but it’s never comfortable enough to forget. I tell myself this is good, to remember the knife, but when I get into trouble it’s always the first thing I forget. Once there was a fistfight with an angry soon-to-be-ex-wife when I served her divorce papers. I didn’t know the pale and anxious blonde woman, but I guess sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the process server from the home-wrecker.  She punched me, a weak blow to my chin. I swung back with a right cross, its strength more from training than anger. Her family dragged me out of the house before I could even consider the knife in my boot.

They were kinder though than the smoldering tower of a man I served an eviction to a month later. The resonance of his silence immobilized me as his dark hands lifted me at my waist, holding me away from his body and discarding me on the street. He turned back for his house and I scrambled away. I held the folded knife to my lips while I sat locked in my truck, waiting for my legs to stop shaking enough to work the clutch.

Once I felt the wiz of a stray bullet chipping bark off the tree in front of me in the dark. It was a bad neighborhood in East Riverside and the bullet wasn’t aimed for me, but that wouldn’t have made a difference had it found me. The sound of the bullet brought me to my knees, but none of these things ever brought out my knife.

An attorney friend of mine asked why I don’t have a gun. He said he would help me get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, that it would be easy for a 21 year-old process server to lower her eyes before a judge and be granted permission. I shook my head though and patted my boot. I bought my boyfriend a Ruger for Christmas, but every time we went to the shooting range I left shaking. My aim was excellent, but it hadn’t made me feel comfortable with a gun in my hand. The silence of a resting Ruger feels similar to that man carrying me to the curb. I trust my knife, but I stopped keeping it in my boot.  It found a new home in my hawking vest, assistance for the first hunts in my new passion of falconry.

***

In the Old Vineyard by Tomas Pir, courtesy of Creative Common Licensing on Flickr

In the Old Vineyard by Tomas Pir, courtesy of Creative Common Licensing on Flickr

The redtail bows her head and warns me with her eyes that I’m pushing my luck, but I leave my hand in position and look away. I brace for the pain, but it doesn’t come and my hawk returns to her meal. I brush a finger across her yellow toes, feeling the dip of a missing scale, the ridges where the others come together. She stops looking up, stops worrying about me, so I slip the knife through the rabbit’s chest, opening a hole to the cavity beneath the skin. I put the bloody knife behind me, beneath a grapevine in the sandy soil. I reach over to stretch the rabbit’s skin and show her the opening. She drinks the blood and then eats the heart and lungs, her eyes narrowed into raptorial bliss.

When she’s eaten enough, I slip her off the carcass for a leg I hold in my glove, quickly hiding the rest of today’s meal in the game pouch at the back of my vest.  She rests easy on my fist and I stand to look over the dying vineyard. Another jackrabbit jumps up two rows over and gallops away from us, he’s moving fast, but his ears are up so I know he could be moving faster, ears flattened at full speed. I want to watch him disappear, dissolve into a speck of wild, but the sun is setting and I have a paper that I need to serve a few blocks away.

I turn to leave, but then turn back, deciding to watch anyway as he makes his way to the road line on the south side of the field. He can’t disappear without crossing the busy street and is smart enough not to try. He stops, fading in his stillness from my view.  Heading back to the truck, I relive the hunt in my head, the hawk’s powerful flight and the wingover into the equally powerful hare. I remember the desperate battle concealed in a cloud of sand. Then I smile over the fact that my redtail has finally allowed me to reach between her legs, assist her with her meal. I’m not thinking about the knife. I don’t realize that I’ve left the Spyderco in the field and that it’s lost to me forever.

Heart to Tear

Don’t wait until your thirty-four to get your first dog. You’ll do this because you’re waiting until you live in the right place, have enough resources, can make the time and carry fewer distractions. These are the things that you will say when you have run out of excuses to be kind to yourself. You should have a dog, because you have always needed a dog, but at thirty-four you have waited too long.

How many lessons in canine wisdom are you short?

How many lessons in canine wisdom are you short?

Like chicken pox, that puppy was meant to be a childhood passage. How else will you discover that a puff of puppy breath dissipates the tang of tension from the air? There is after all, only one way to find out that burying your tears in dog fur will heal a betrayal ten times faster than sobbing into a feather pillow. And your assertion that your closest friend is the best listener is three counties will be smashed by the champion skills of dog. You will realize that your dogless life has been a handicap. Now you’re an adult and it’s not too late to catch up, but like chicken pox, there are repercussions for waiting.

When you have to give her back to the ground, your first dog, your best friend, you know too much. You know exactly what has been taken from you and that nothing in life is repeatable. The first jab of this sort of pain is meant to be dulled by a child’s belief in magical possibilities; ghost dogs and reincarnation. At thirty-six the best you can do is stay silent and still, to pray you won’t lose something else or feel something more.

You will be dating someone who demands you talk about your pain even though you don’t have the strength or the words. This person will shout at you for shutting them out. Then you will realize then that there are two kinds of people. Your beau is the sort who insists that closing your dog in a kennel by the bed is cruel when you could instead shut her out of the room. You’ll end the relationship and wonder how many more lessons in canine wisdom you are short.

Your next dog will be nothing like the first. This will be a blessing and an ache. She too may leave too soon or just in time, but will run you through the paces as will the canine coaches that follow. It will be as if they know they have much catch up work to do and so they push. They punctuate their lessons with pink-tongued smiles and by standing upright, pressing two paws to your heart. They are merciless with their love.

You become a good pupil and you hope that is enough, but you would be a better person had a dog trained you early in life. You will be a better person now, but if you still have a choice, if there is still time, don’t wait until you are thirty-four.

Storytelling

No Cable for Us - by trekkyandy on Flickr Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

No Cable for Us - by trekkyandy on Flickr Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

“Come here,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

I put down the book I was reading, a book about dragons that were telepathically connected to their handlers, and I stood up to follow him. I had two favorite worlds; one of them spun from small type and imagination, the other a place of individual wonders narrated by my grandfather. I was always willing to trade one for the other.

I couldn’t always count on my grandfather’s world being less fictional than fantasy novels, however. After all, it turned out there really weren’t crabs that lived in the snow and charcoal didn’t actually grow on trees. None of this really mattered to me though, lines blurred and there was just as much magic in the symmetrical chambers of a paper wasp’s nest or a faint line of geese sounding impossibly near, heralding the way north.

“She’s up there,” he said. He pointed. The rickety rooftop antennae that normally funneled transmissions to the television below had collected a falcon. “She’s a peregrine.” He said this like she was a Cadillac, more expensive, attractive, better built than any other bird he had ever shown me. “And she’s a falconer’s bird.”

I don’t know how he recognized this after inspecting her, why he understood anklets and bells, why he also knew someone hunted ducks with her. He didn’t know any falconers. It may have been that he had just read A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey, about Christopher Boyce, the falconer who sold classified information to the Soviet Union and was convicted of spying. Boyce was local and his story captivated. Or perhaps it was 1980, Boyce fresh in my grandfather’s mind, having now escaped from Lompoc and proving that the meticulous mind of a falconer was also practical for orchestrating successful bank robberies. Seventeen of them to be exact. I can’t be sure, because my grandfather never told me about Boyce. His storyteller’s sensibilities kept him from spinning tales that were impossible to believe, even if they were true.

Instead, my grandfather told me about this bird’s falconer, how he lived, where he would hunt. He described how they worked together and the care he had to take to keep her flying and returning. He knew for a fact that she was just stopping over, on her way back to him. I believed every word.

I think there are stories that once heard, forever remain a whisper in your ear. They are always true in their own way. It doesn’t make a difference if they’re fiction.

You don’t recognize their power when you first hear them. I went back to my book after the falcon flew away. My grandfather returned to his saw, slicing pine, dovetailing wood pieces into the whole of whatever he was working on. Neither of us knowing he had shown me a fork in the road, given me a falcon to chase and that I would never be able to resist.

When Confronted

 

Soaring into the Sun by CBou on Flickr Courtesy of Creative Commons License
Soaring into the Sun by C’Bou on Flickr Courtesy of Creative Commons License

“I know what you’re doing here,” a gaunt man with bushy eyebrows barked at me, his white van slowing to keep time with my stride down the dirt road. I glanced at his equally disapproving, but healthier looking wife and then checked the red-tailed hawk on my glove. The hawk was unperturbed, ripping at her tyring, which was good, because I was tense.

    “I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, although I knew whatever he meant it wouldn’t be flattering.

     “Ever since we started seeing you here, all of the quail have disappeared from our yard. We live over there,” he motioned. I stopped walking and sighed. I supposed a red-tailed hawk could catch a quail if she really tried; she could catch just about anything if she really tried, but the bane to quail always has been the Cooper’s hawk. I’d never caught a quail with a hawk in my life. “We don’t want you coming here anymore,” he said.

  “Do you own this land, Sir?” I asked this, but I knew the answer. I had seen the phone number on the “For Sale” sign and the area code was out of state. The property, choked with Lantana, adjacent to the shell of what had been a bowling alley and edging a little pond was a haven to cottontail and swamp rabbits. It was the best place, the only place I had found near my home in Florida to hunt rabbits with the hawk and I wasn’t giving it up. The man didn’t answer me, so I continued. “My hawk doesn’t catch quail.” I adjusted the rabbit leg she was eating and the wife wrinkled her nose.

    “I saw your hawk in my yard. It’s dangerous and I don’t want it near our dog.”

      I nodded. It had been a long hard week that even the night’s hunt hadn’t made better. I pointed to Syd’s anklets and jesses, “Did you see any leather around its legs, like this?”

     “I wouldn’t get that close,” he sniffed.

     I flicked the bell on her bewit and it jingled like a sleigh. “Did you hear a bell?”

      “No,” he said.

  “Sir, can I show you something? Will you get out of your car?”

     He looked at my hawk as if I might use her as a weapon, but his wife nudged him and he got out, carefully, suspiciously. And I thought to myself that my career in wildlife education was likely to be short lived, because I was barely keeping my tongue civil. Moments like this made my pulse burn with rage over fools and parents and tyrants. I pointed up and his gaze followed. Two red-tailed hawks soared in opposing circles, the preliminary motions of March romance.

    “Could it have been one of them?” I asked.

      The man nodded without taking his eyes off them. “Suppose,” he said, sounding uncertain, not of the answer, but of everything.

     “Those aren’t mine,” I said, “They’re yours. Take good care of them.”

     I loaded the truck and drove off, my last glimpse one of the human couple, backs arched, necks straining for a better view. I never saw them again.  

 

 

 

Idiot Check

It was daybreak and only two hours before I needed to be at work. I had rolled out of bed at some ungodly hour and even after coffee, falcon weighing and truck loading, hadn’t really woken up until I arrived in the field. I was standing outside of my truck at Whitewater, that strange duck haven carved in the sand and tossed by the wind. And the tyrant wind was coming. There was already a stiff breeze. I knew this place intimately. And with the same intuition that warned me another hour without food would turn my boyfriend into a glowering snapping troll, I knew I had an hour before Whitewater would turn on me, becoming unflyable. If only there was some way to appease the gods of weather, the way you could lay food at the altar of boyfriend. The raft of canvasbacks would have to be approached now or wait for some other morning, unfortunately there was a problem.

I had forgotten my vest at home. I had no license on me, no lure and no food.

If only the coffee had been stronger. If only I had done an idiot check before I left. My ex would always shout “IDIOT CHECK” before we left a hotel room or a friends or on a trip and we would scramble about looking for anything we might have left, laughing at the game of revealing personal stupidity. I still see him sometimes, a best friend now and it’s still one of my favorite games, but it wasn’t one I played that morning. My inner dunce had just sabotaged my daybreak hunt.

Or had it?

I stared at my falcon who was trying to look past his hood into the dawn.  I had a license. I could prove it, later. And I had telemetry with me at least. I wouldn’t lose him. If he caught a canvasback, there would be food. If he caught nothing, I could call him down to one of my boots tied off with parachute cord, clip him up before he realized he had been called down to shoe leather for nothing but a song.

But he would catch the duck, I just knew it.

The falcon was leaning into the possibilites of the morning’s joys, straining for them to come sooner and I lost my mind. I wanted to believe. I wanted to do right by my bird. I wanted… well I wanted instant gratification. Let’s just say my french fries never make it home. I slipped a transmitter into his backback, shoved a wad of parachute cord in my pocket, strapped the receiver across my back so that I wouldn’t feel so naked and released him.

If you’re looking for a disasterous ending, I’m sorry to disappoint. He caught a drake canvasback that we both had for the day’s sweetest meal and I was rewarded for my stupidity. But isn’t that just the way gambling works?

What’s the stupidest thing you ever got away with in the field?

Making Place

In Australia

In Australia

It took eight years of email exchange before I finally met Hans and Pam Peeters. Hans is one of my favorite wildlife artists and our first email exchange consisted of him asking me what the bird was on my glove in a photograph he spotted in the CHC Journal.

“It looks Australasian,” he said, “but that simply isn’t possible because you cannot get Australian birds into the United States.”

…Oh the well-trained eyes of a biologist/artist. He was looking  at a photo of me with my Australian brown goshawk in the bush just outside of Healesville, Victoria. It was snapped just before my last hunt with her and her subsequent release.

A few years later, I found myself begging for a commissioned piece of her.  Hans agreed and completed the painting in 2007.  —I finally got my act together and picked it up yesterday.

It was hanging on the wall, behind him as we sat at the kitchen table, swapping stories. Falconers are surely the greatest of story tellers. Perhaps it is that so much of what we love happens in fleeting moments with no witnesses. The only way to hold on to the magic is to try to somehow match the memory for another with a well spun yarn.  I could listen to falconers for hours, especially if I get to weave a few tales of my own.

But all through the storytelling, my eyes kept wandering back to the painting and the sparks of memories it lit through my senses. I could smell the ecalypt,  hear the bell miners and whipbirds. I fought the urge to fidget with my pant legs, thinking if I were hunting in Oz, the dress pants I wore might not be thick enough to manage the deadly, but shallow-fanged snakes.  And though I wanted to stare, I only stole glances, as if she were really the skittish goshawk whose tenuous partnership I only barely kept intact the months we hunted together. She could ignore the currawongs harassing her to the end of time, but if I looked at her wrong she would ghost into the bush, no more than a faintly ringing bell in the distance.
I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but the painting evoked place and moment in a visceral way. “It’s the light,” Pam said and she was right.  That dusky dense light pushing through air that smells as thick as it feels and looks was Australia. That light washed me in homesickness, that deep ache I felt the entire time I was there.  And there was a new melancholy in the feeling as well, a softer yearning for a time that had come and gone, a place I had made mine for just a little while, knowing all the while I wanted to and had to go home.

But now here she is forever, my feathered specter in a noisy stand of eucalypts, the Cassandra’s eyes of an accipter looking into my past and perhaps my future. Better than a falconer’s story. Better than a memory. Thank you, Hans.  It’s amazing.

The Moment that Made You

I was a process server with an attorney services business, serving evictions, foreclosures, and sundry subpoenas and complaints. We were in the middle of the last housing crash and I was 23, working 14 hour days and immediately despised by all whose misfortune led me to their door. I was living in an apartment above my father’s garage because I had just sent the stalker, who had walked into my rented condo and nearly shot my baby brother, to jail. Yet even the cloistered press of butting up against my father’s life couldn’t squeeze away the night frights. My father and I were in a lot of ways strangers and the grandfather who raised me was downstairs slowly leaving us with a sadness and a readiness that I refused to accept.  Nothing was okay for me, unless I was flying my hawk.

Dirt hawking alone pushes your physical limits.  Trip on wires, stumble into squirrel holes, scrape yourself on gnarled vines, beat bush, bake in the sun and race after slips. When the hunt is over, you’re as exhausted as the hawk, but you feel just as complete. The punishment is part of the bliss and I was slowly finding enlightenment.

The moment that made me happened at dusk. I was alone with my hawk, who was panting with a jack rabbit in her feet. I looked up with sweat stung eyes, stretching aching muscles and realized I wasn’t just alone, I was someplace both out of this time and critical to its existence. I was a hunter thanking the rabbit that fed her hawk, sating the sand with perspiration and blood, just as we had taken the life that sprung from it. The air was spiced with fermenting feral grapes, the song birds hidden in the vines now accepting us with their evening chatter. We were part of something immense and curved back on itself, but also something invisible.

The rush hour hive of vehicles passing close enough to make out my features didn’t see me and I knew they were a piece of the world I must return to, but I also knew the space I was in would call me back. It would keep calling even if I covered my ears and screamed about money and possessions and responsibility. I knew I was now owned by a wild and dangerous place that would steal hawks, destroy dogs and break my heart   –yet always give back more than she took. It was only five acres of forgotten vineyard, a watermark on the page of what progress had done to Ontario, California, but it was everything and I was a falconer.

And I’m not the only one, I know. What was the moment that made you?

First Trapped

Just a baby falconer...

Just a baby falconer...

I didn’t keep the first hawk I ever trapped, but I did take the second. I had waited nearly two years and didn’t see the sense in waiting another minute, let alone another hour to find some other hawk or worse wait for the next weekend. I needed a hawk that very moment and the only reason I turned down the first red-tailed hawk  was because it was a male. It was a small tiercel and I was like nearly every other apprentice that ever was. I wanted a great big bone crushing female hawk.

The first bird was trapped on a harnessed pigeon, a pigeon that was retreived without a scratch. I should have kept that bird, the one that couldn’t resist the flapping of wings along the roadside, even though he obviously wasn’t hungry. He was probably a good healthy versatile hawk. He probably would have come around quickly and was probably in no danger of sucummbing to aspergillosis. But I rejected him on the size of his feet and then never gave him a second thought. At least not until now.

I should have kept that hawk.  He probably would have been well-mannered and respectful of my size, ignoring the tenderness of my fleshy hands and thinned skinned skull. He probably never would have pinned me to the floor of the mews, muscled a talon through my palm or knocked me in the back of the head when he missed rabbits in the field.  I wish I could say it was because I was greedier and stupider when I was younger, but he was just the first in 15 years of knowing what I should do and following my desire instead. I suppose that desire is central to this sport. Still, I should have kept that hawk.

What about you? What was the first hawk you ever trapped?