duck hawking
Just one More Flight


Story by Trevor Mellish

He came in a double crate shared with a white gyrkin. The breeder said he was dark, a black one!. This would be my third gyrXperegrine tiercel. Being somewhat frustrated with my last attempt, my new desire was rekindled by a visit to southern Alberta. I was happy to accept an invitation from Steve Schwartze to do some grouse and partridge hawking around the Lethbridge area. That's a another story! However I saw some great classic long-wing flights by Steve's pugnacious gyrXbarbary tiercel, Cargil. I was sold, a new hybrid was on the shopping list.

The snappy wing beat of the hybrid tiercel, the big pitch and the ballsy prowess into the stoop had me hook, line and sinker. My focus for the last few seasons were concentrated on a anatum falcon and peales falcon. The peales met her demise on a duck flight and a irrigation fence. Lila was turning into something good!! The spectacular pupils never seem to survive, and reach there potential.

Back to the bird in the crate. He was a black gyrXperegine alright! I am not sure of the peregrine lineage but by estimating his size I would pick an anatum. He had the look of a small black gyrfalcon. I prefer the full capped head and the clean silhouette of a dark falcon in our mostly grey winter skies.

He tipped the scales out of the box at 850 grams. Not a big bird to handle big drake mallards! I knew he would be sub 700 grams to get him entered. Size isn't everything! In the back of my mind I had a different flying routine mapped out for him already, he would be a big duck slayer, soon.

I named the new charge Cole. The manning went without incident. He was past hard pinned at this arrival rendering him wild and fat. After a week he was hooding and taking his meal on the fist. I made the decision from the beginning he would be looking outward for his meal never into the bag. I never called him to me, he took his first meals off a kite rig set up in the backyard. Like most GPT's he was a quick study and took to the routine easily. I was looking for a falcon that was looking to get his meal the instant the braces were struck.

I was going to rely on a kite and in hindsight a balloon was needed. I had almost no wind in his early conditioning. Being dead set against showing the lure or any pimping by stooping him. I would have to use homers earlier in the regime than I would have liked. My training fields back up onto blueberry farms. To my delight Cole's bird chasing instinct was strong. Starlings were staging at the end of the day's feasting on blueberries. Flocks of thousands would take to the sky when the black hybrid made his appearance.

These early flights took him hundreds of feet into the sky. All I needed to do was serve homers when he was up in sky herding the big flock. It was a lucky bit of natural behaviour that I was able to harness. Soon he would leave the fist and mount into sky on his search for flocks of starlings. I had to look for him only once on his starling flying flights.

The best thing I had resorted to no trickery during these early windless days. He was developing and flying stronger on his own without much input from me. When the time came to push higher the late September breezes arrived. The kite flying progressed fast, the early yard work paid dividends. In a few days he was taking the bait from 1000 feet. At one point I let all the spectra line out, that was 1800 feet of kite line! I walked to the end of the field and cast him off. At about 1000 feet while he was climbing away I tossed two homers. As expected his attention was upward and the homers had time to get some distance. He did not see the homers until a huge horizontal gap had formed. His out of position angular stoop was quite a site. The pigeons had him beat easily but his youthful exuberance took him out of vision. Thank goodness for Janssen blood racers.

On his return to the kite I released a mallard from a remote launcher. There was no hesitation after the fruitless flight at the homers. He made contact with the duck instantly, it was a clumsy high speed bind attempt. The hybrid was coming in to fast for a successful bind. Instead a tearing cuff sent the mallard to the ground. He was on his way!!

Now, let's not get excited. The difficult aspect of building on the success in the flying field is carrying it over into the hunting environment. I have learned that a young falcon's tendency is the bleed off speed if it is stooping vertically. The vertical stoop is not a natural hunting strategy for immature falcons. This is why I no longer serve a young falcon from a vertical position while climbing to a kite. The vertical stoop is a skill the falcon learns in time.
Instead I serve from a high but slightly wide position when possible. This method will serve me well when I move into ditch hawking ducks.

As the duck season progressed I was able recycle many of the 60 ducks my anatum, Cowgirl had caught. This was crucial in giving the young hybrid as much success as humanly possible at the intended quarry. When Cole was unsuccessful I backed it up with a sure kill. Nothing breeds success like success! He soon was hammering anything that got up. On one occasion he knocked down a Canada goose that flushed while he was mounting wide for a pond setup. Wisely, he didn't attempt a ground battle.

When things really started to gel with the hybrid, I began to notice some irregularities in this flight style. It appeared that he flew with his left wing closer to his body. Though it didn't seem to affect his ability to fly or climb to great pitches. He was however lacking the level speed I had experienced with previous gyrXperegrine tiercels. In a lot of ways this was more of a plus than a negative. He didn't tail chase obsessively, and preferred to take a high vertical position for a flush. A trait used by a more experienced falcon.

There were two days left in 2009 duck season and Cole was taking ducks from beautiful pitches. In the back of my mind after I stepped him off the balance beam scale, 735 grams, I thought just one more flight and I will put him up for the molt. He was becoming exceedingly reliable and was tenacious in the re-flush. West coast duck hawking requires a falcon that is willing to remount for the re-flush to be successful. Nothing wants to die!

Bob and I had a set of green winged teal marked about 150 yards down the ditch. The procedure was to release the falcon 200 yards away from the flush. We fanned out while the hybrid took to the sky. The objective was to put the teal between us and orchestrate a flush while the falcon was high and slightly wide and behind us. The task at hand was playing to perfection. Cole was well over a thousand feet and at a great advantage for a surgical attack. Being high and slightly wide he had a good chance of not being detected by the ducks.

I signalled Bob to move into the flush. He would initiate a soft flush directing the teal towards me, I would then force them to change direction out into the field. This technique works exceptionally well with bold and confident mallards, but the little winged rats have there own noncommittal agenda.

I heard the sizzle of the hybrid's stoop. The teal started to popcorn into the corn field trying to avoid the hit. Next I heard the crack of a direct hit, a small duck took a severe blow and cart wheeled through cut corn stalks into the high grass at the edge of the ditch. I have never witnessed a stoop at such close range, I could feel the wash of wind as the falcon passed by me.

Cole attempted a severe throw up and wing over to collect his prize. During this insane maneuver he faltered for a second and dropped like a leaf on the opposite side of the six foot ditch. At first I thought it odd and when he just stood inert looking confused, my heart sank. The ditch was to wide to jump so it took several minutes to walk back to the end and up the other side. Once located he stepped up on my garnished glove. His right wing was hanging, at first it looked dislocated because he could hold it up. I would later learn the end of the bone had sheared off. It was impossible to fix. He would never fly into the heavens again.

This was Cole's last flight.