Sunday, November 2, 2014

Morning with a Rock Star

You know how it is:  you meet a rock star and you want to tell everyone about it.

Earlier this autumn in Scotland, we went hawking, to use the preferred 14th century term, with two goshawks.  Birds of prey are never domesticated.  They can be trained but, to my mind, it is really more of a negotiation, culminating in a contract of expectations between two dissimilar and wary participants.  Here’s a clause from the contract:  if I, the party of the second part, the human, raise my gauntlet to form a perch, the party of the first part, the hawk, can expect there is something raw and scrumptious on the gauntlet which will merit the flight of the party of the first part to that perch on the wrist of the party of the second part.  The penalty for violating the contract can be high.  With some birds, such as the striated Caracara from the Falklands, the contracts can also be very intricate.  They are intelligent and murderous lawyers.

Here is a way to fall in love:  watch a Goshawk skimming low across an autumnal field in pursuit of her prey, the tapestry of her great rounded wings slightly undulating to make her flight perfectly smooth and precise.  In my case it was a particularly beautiful, appropriately vain and slightly capricious Goshawk named Freya.  As I learned in one of my first lessons in powered flight years ago, flying close to the ground is by far the most exhilarating and dangerous kind.  And yes, I am quite aware that this was a case of unrequited love.

But Freya wasn’t the rock star.  The rock star was a hybrid, one half Falco Peregrinus, that is, a Peregrine Falcon, with whom we spent some time earlier that day.  Even though I had a very fast shuttered camera, every photo I have of the falcon is blurred.  She was simply too fast.  Falcons hunt high and stoop to kill other birds in flight.  That morning, as soon as the falcon took wing, the wintry sky filled with other birds seeking to fly above the soaring falcon to where they would be safe.

We had several conversations about the natural history of various birds of prey with Adrian, the master falconer leading our little expedition.  For example, the plumage of a juvenile Peregrine Falcon differs  dramatically from that of the adult.  When fledglings leave the nest, they’re barely competent flyers, poor hunters and sexually immature.  The plumage serves to inform any adult falcons, whose territory the juveniles may be crossing, that they are neither threat nor competition and can be allowed to pass unmolested.  Their juvenile plumage thus gives them the best chance of completing their essential journey and surviving until they find a place in the world which they can make their own.

Which leads me to my reason for hawking.  There are few other experiences that bring you into such immediate and empathetic proximity to the wild and natural world.  Yet, even in the most urban environments the wilderness is still with us and within us.

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