Sunday, December 4, 2016

A day with the falcons

The first day of the meet was hard on Jessa's knee, so we made separate plans for day two: she would go into the village, and I would go snipe hawking with a different group of falconers. Now comes the tricky part; Jess kept the camera, so we'll have to do this sans photos. (Go back and look at the weathering yard to see some of the falcons flown this day.) [UPDATE: I now have a few photos, snipped from a video of stills sent out by meet organiser Don Ryan. I don't know who shot these, but thanks to all.]

I had the good fortune to ride along with Maurice Nicholson, whom I liked immediately. A charming gentleman, Maurice is a veterinarian who has practiced in Ireland, the UK, and the UAE, which is where in the late 1970s he began his involvement in falconry. (Actually, now that I think of it, this background is nicely reflected in his hawking rig: a silver Land Rover with a good but aging setter and a young tiercel shaheen loaded in the back.) The conversation wound comfortably from topic to topic as we drove up into the mountains, in the interior of the Iveragh Peninsula.

[Maurice with his shaheen and setter.]

Near the River Caragh, below the eponymous village of Glencar (Gleann Chàrthaigh), is an extensive carpet bog. And more than the falconers and their hawks, more even than the mountain scenery, the bog made me miss the camera. Like the Nebraska prairie, the bog is a beautiful landscape best appreciated up close. Short grasses (which would not look out of place on the prairie) mix with lichens and an amazing variety of mosses—red mosses, black mosses, and of course any number of greens—but from a distance the overall impression of this profoundly wet place is sere and brown.

Our party set forth with a dozen or so hawks—mostly peregrines, but also gyrs, hybrids, and shaheens—hooded on a variety of clever one-handed cadges. (The party itself was just as varied: Irishmen, Britons, Italians, Germans, and Americans.) The dogs—Maurice's setter and another run by his friend Kevin—were worked one at a time so as to conserve their energy. A wise precaution, as it turned out, for they were to be quite busy.

[Cadges—Kevin's and Gary's, I think.]

According to Maurice, a few snipe breed here, but by November their numbers are swelled by incoming migrants from eastern Europe. These snipe have seen a hawk or two in their journeys, and it shows. The hawks, each in turn, waited on directly overhead and stooped well—save the gyrs, who, to be fair, were doubtless put off by the relatively warm weather—but flight after flight, the shifty snipe narrowly evaded capture and were cheered by the party.

If the warm weather was not conducive to great flights by the gyrs, nevertheless I must say it was appreciated by me, for I was baptised—up to the waist—four times. On none of these occasions did I encounter solid ground; my footing was as squishy down below as it had been on the surface. (I was carrying Maurice's telemetry, and while the case got wet on one of these dunkings, the receiver itself fortunately stayed dry. Perhaps it's just as well, though, that Jess had the camera.) Several of my companions told of having been immersed to the neck on other occasions, and at a minimum it seems advisable to hawk on the "buddy system", with larger parties advisable. The bog is beautiful but treacherous, and it's not difficult to imagine that an unlucky lone visitor to the bog might simply be swallowed up altogether.

We all made it back to the vehicles safely, however, and once there drinks were passed 'round: blackberry-flavoured sloe gin, Irish whiskey, and, to my surprise and amusement, Budweiser. It had been another day of good dog work, grand flying, and excellent company in amazing surroundings.

[The snipe-hawking party.]

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