Friday, February 27, 2009
Falconry on the Isle of Arran
Yesterday I visited an eagle breeding project. The birds and enclosures were immaculate. Throughout the day, one could hear a pair of Bonelli's eagles calling to eachother periodically in the background. High-pitched but strong, the sounds suited the lanky, long-legged Iberian birds. As we ate lunch in a lovely greenhouse-esque room, a pair of pied crows fluttered down from the rafters to investigate. I had not experienced captive corvids before, they are wonderfully curious creatures. The day got me thinking about a unique falconry meet I attended.
Two years ago, I was eating lunch with a friend at another eagle breeding project. Andrew and his family had very kindly "taken me in" that season. It was September, and no Bonelli's were calling to eachother, but a male was perched out in the garden, methodically preening in the perpetual Scottish drizzle. "Would you like to go to a falconry meet this weekend?" I hesitated, it was quite early in the year, and I was supposed to be attending orientation activities at Glasgow University. "It is on the Isle of Arran." That did it; the thought of hawking on a Scottish isle was so foreign and different to me. A few days later, I was locking up my flat and hurrying down the steps to catch a cab, and then a bus back to Andrew's.
After loading up and a short ride to the west coast of Scotland, we drove aboard the ferry. It was only an hour long jaunt across the Firth of Clyde. The isle was utterly green and the air full of a salty humidity. It was the antithesis of what I was used to hawking in; flat plains with dried grass, skeleton brush and bare trees. A group of longwingers, who had been flying red grouse the day prior, were already there and soon joined us. Brown hares were our quarry today. They had been introduced to Arran some time ago. We assembled on a gently sloping hillside, which rolled down into the firth. Holy Island could be seen just offshore. The conditions were incredibly pleasant all around.
Harris hawks, red-tails and this Bonelli's were flown off-the-fist and (some) out-of-the-hood. While some hares would spring from our feet, many would get up thirty or forty yards out and make for longer, exciting flights. The Harris hawks were quite successful, as the hard-flown birds typically are. The Bonelli's would launch, all wings and legs - picking up speed with rapid-fire wingbeats and folding at the final moment before impact. The eagle possessed an almost accipiter-like agility and could turn on a dime without committing himself, as a golden would be forced to.
While walking along in our line, a resident falconer told me about the success of flying golden eagles waiting-on over such ground in years' past. I could picture this - the breeze off the sea against the hillsides, or in some places, the cliff faces, ought to provide wonderful lift for an experienced golden. Falconry for me had always been practiced in some landlocked scape. But now, the thought of watching an eagle hang above on an onshore breeze, was certainly appealing. The falconers were characters, and returning to the hotel in the small, clustered village for dinner offered great food and banter. I even learned a few words of Gaelic ("Slàinte mhòr agad!"). A lot of ground was covered and several hares were taken over the course of the weekend. It had struck me very oddly yesterday, the sound of the calling Bonelli's, and suddenly brought the memory of this field meet rushing back.