Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Our Day of Falconry with John Dowling

   As a wedding gift for Seeg, I bought a falconry experience day. He's always loved raptors - any time a sparrow hawk lands in the garden he gets chills and stands there for ages watching it, then watching where it had been once it flies off. It's something he's toyed with the idea of pursuing, too - of course, just how to get started is the biggest issue; it's always seemed like one of those things that require chance and opportunity rather than something that could be sought out, and even if it could be, trainers would be few and far between.
   Either way, before he could give such a thing any serious thought, I felt it would be best to give him the opportunity to get close to the birds and an experience day was, to my mind, the best way to go about it.

   I found John Dowling Falconry on Google after searching for falconry experience days in Bristol, and not only did he have top results, but he offered a range of experiences from a single hour to a full day. Since it was a wedding gift, and something that could potentially be the start of something much, much more, the full 6-hour experience seemed best. It would give him time to exhaust his nerves, calm down and get relatively comfortable around the birds.
   And, I admit it was cheeky, I decided to join in.

   We started at 10, and it was not a cool day. 28 C without a cloud in the sky and very little breeze. I'd wondered if it was even still on since it was so hot, but I reasoned that a professional knows his birds and that he wouldn't endanger them (the entire 6-hour experience with John and Michaela confirmed that assumption), so we went on ahead.
   Both the people and location were wonderful, shared with the Avon Riding School - there was one relatively simple rule for harmonious living: if there's a horse in the field, don't fly the bird in it. If someone's flying a bird in the field, don't put a horse in it.
   After introductions, we proceeded with the morning. First, we watched them fly Quetzalli, a peregrin-aplomado hybrid, then Scirocco, a full-bred peregrin. The birds were allowed to fly freely - with light-weight transmitters, just in case - then began swinging the lure around with a yummy little chick attached to it. The bird would dive, make passes, make turns and use decoys - the sun and, at one point, us - to hide its approach to the lurer, and when finally it hit the lure, it was allowed the prize. Of course, it was a hot day, so when the birds began to gape (which is basically avian panting) they would let them have the lure rather than pulling it away. It got its prize, duly rewarded.
   Then, we got to fly one. A kestrel named Spike. I knew they were quite small, but I hadn't really realised how small. You don't usually get the chance to make out the size of such things in the wild. We had falconry gloves and were given morsels of meat and the birds would fly fromt he handler to us then back again, giving us the chance to marvel and take pictures. We didn't take many - it was the kind of thing we wanted to actually experience, not take photos of and forget the feeling of. I was quite surprised by how light the bird was. If I'd prioritised pictures, I'd have forgotten that detail by now. It was amazing.

   We had lunch and a chat, saw pictures of some of his other birds and chicks he was rearing, and asked about the profession. Then we were back outside.
   We watched them fly another peregrin hybrid, crossed with a saker, who was prone to being difficult, if not just flying off. They brought the transmitter receiver with them just in case, but, in true rain-coat-theory fashion, we didn't need it. He was perfectly well-behaved.
   Then we were flying again, and this time it was a harris hawk named JJ and we were out in the woods rather than open fields. We saw his agility, watched him fly through the trees, land from the trees to our gloves and then off again. He was a bit of a showman, too. We took him to a field at the end of the forest and Seeg and I stood only a foot apart, and the bird flew towards us, tucked in his wings, darted between us and then onto Michaela's glove. He did it several times, and it was so hard not to turn my head away and close my eyes on instinct. I only managed it once. I felt so stupid. But it was also so awesome.
   They tried to get him to soar, but he was too hot, and at one point rather than fly to a glove he just ran across the ground towards us. Much like a dinosaur. And I do love dinosaurs. After that he flew up onto Seeg's glove and stayed there, then the gaping started, so I was really, really pleased that Seeg was the one to carry him back into the cooler woods rather than the handlers. Just that little bit more, you know? He flew about quite happily in there for a little bit longer, then was rewarded with a mouse.

   After JJ came Tony, a 9-year-old barn owl. But he was just coming off a rest period and had to be retrained, as all the birds do. They're barely domesticated, and they certainly don't have the in-bred domestication that dogs do, so when they're left alone for a while, they need a refresher course. Tony was being flown on the training line rather than freely, just in case he decided to leave, and we were the first strangers he would have flown with for a long while. We were guinea pigs in that sense, and while he did land on our gloves, he preferred to land on John's shoulder. Because he loves his daddy. And that's all totally fair enough. Animals are animals, and I find them wholly more reasonable than people.

   The whole experience was amazing. It went really well - so well that Seeg put himself out there at the end and asked about training and volunteer work. John, Michaela and Lizzie were all so friendly and made us both really comfortable very quickly - and we're not people-people - and the location itself is great. The birds have lots of room to fly, and with the site on a hill, they have an easy time getting to good heights so they can fly freely, fly far, but they're still within sight.
   And, to be honest, I have great respect for John. Seeing his hand shaking after luring the birds was amazing - no matter how long he's been doing it, he's still fully aware that he's directly interacting with a near-wild animal's primal instinct to hunt and kill. And that alone demands a respect of the man even if you've never met him. He's not been jaded. It hasn't become mundane, and he clearly respects the creatures he loves and works with. I know I have no one else to compare him to, but if Seeg were to pursue falconry, working under someone with that kind of respect could be nothing but the best example.

   Genuinely, I can't recommend John Dowling's Falconry Academy enough. The people, the birds, the honesty, and the amount we've learned - from the origins of the phrases 'fed up' and 'rouse yourself' to habits and conduct among different species - makes the whole experience well-rounded and generally unforgettable.
   And, most importantly, Seeg got his first taste. And it stoked the fire.

   Oh, and JJ moulted a feather just before we started so we have a cool souvenir :B


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