Sláinte Series: The Falcons

There were a lot of things that made our Ireland journey unforgettable.  I’ll get to sharing many of them, but the first experience is one that will hardly be topped.  As we were researching things to do while at Ashford Castle, we casually looked at the activity section on their website.  The moment I saw it, it was a non-negotiable excursion.  Falconry.

I have this thing with birds.  I’m what you would call an amateur birder, someone who watches birds and in extreme cases, can identify them in the wild.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “A Good Year”, you understand what I’m talking about.  If not, go watch it!  It has Steve Martin in it!

I’m not so dedicated as to know their whistles and calls, but birding was something my grandfather and mother instilled in my young heart as far back as I can remember.  I have two birding books in my kitchen window for immediate identification.  For those really close to me, you know that I have a giant red-headed woodpecker tattoo on my right shoulder to commemorate the first birds I remember watching and identifying in the backyard of my grandparents’ home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then in my childhood home in Higginsville.  Most people find this hard to believe that I have a huge bird tattoo, but alas, it’s true.  And now the internet knows.

Back to the hawks and falcons.  Brian and I were totally pumped to have this hour-long experience on the grounds of Ashford Castle at the Ireland School of Falconry, on top of actually staying one night in the 5-star hotel that is Ashford (more on that later).  We booked our Hawk Walk with giddy anticipation and on the morning of July 26, the day after I turned 32, we set out during the one dismal morning of our trip to walk in the woods with our very own Harris Hawks at the Ireland School of Falconry.  (Please ignore the tent/raincoat I’m wearing in the pics below; flattering ponchos are hard to find.)

We turned over the cameras to Brian’s parents, met our guide, and then our hawks, a brother and sister duo named Joyce and Wilde.  We were told about their history and what to expect, as well as given instruction for releasing and flying our new friends.  Brian and I set off on our walk, stopping every so often to release the birds with a step and a thrust of our arms forward where they took off to the trees to hunt in pairs.  They returned to us with the bait of raw meat, and I kid you not — Wilde and I really bonded.  At least we looked each other in the eye more times I can count and our guide was convinced that he was quite comfortable with me.  I’d like to think we were soulmates.  Sorry Brian.

We traipsed around the woods for an hour or so, releasing and calling the birds back while watching them communicate in the trees, hunting for rodents and rabbits.  These small hawks can actually take down large jackrabbits with their claws by snapping the necks and spines of their prey.  They are weighed three times daily to determine proper flying weight and their diets are carefully monitored.  Our guide explained that these birds can be trained, but they are quite the opposite of dogs and horses who feel obligation to their owners.  Birds merely tolerate training and do certain things when they feel like it, or when their stomachs win the battle over their minds.  They also must trust their handlers immensely, and they are very keen to recognize moods, body language, and voices.  A prime example – one of the guides and and a falcon went for a routine, daily flight and the bird refused to come out of the tree for three days.  Their option was to wait until he was ready to return; no amount of coaxing was going to do the trick.  Understandably, training raptors like this is an exercise in patience and longevity.  Our guide had been working with Joyce and Wilde since they were four weeks old.  Fun fact:  Joyce and Wilde are from Colorado.

After what seemed like only minutes and not enough time at all, our group headed back to the School where we put Joyce and Wilde back into their multi-bird aviaries.  They were to sit for several hours digesting the food from our walk.  Wilde even drank his water in our presence, which leads me to further believe he should’ve come back to Missouri with me.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case and our excursion was over.  I sulked.

While I look a little angry in the photos, know that I am in deep concentration and admiration of the bird on my arm, while trying to not scare him with the crazy grin I wanted to have plastered on my face.  I loved every moment of our Hawk Walk, and am now a lifelong admirer of raptor birds and the complexity of their capabilities.  The photos below were taken by our parents who weren’t exactly comfortable with my camera but they capture the jest of how awesome the the experience really was.