This season was a series of mishaps, training challenges, unexpected weather, surprising moments of good luck and some gorgeous flights. So, yes, pretty much like the last nine seasons, only with it’s own flavor and favorites.
Much of my falconry this season also doubled as work. Ducks Unlimited gives me the opportunity to talk about falconry … a lot. I listen to the guys talk about their hunts as miracles; slow dawns, fast limits and a cleansing of 9-to-5 repetition that can only happen in waders. I stare into a pint of beer and just listen, visualizing what the hunters experienced. When I don’t chime in, they figure I probably don’t hunt. And like good friends who worry about the state of my soul, someone in the group will ultimately turn and ask, “Do you hunt ducks, Rebecca?”
I do. Just not with a gun.
From this conversation comes invitations and although places where you would position a blind rarely work for a falconry hunt, I’ve taken up a lot of the offers this season. I love being outside. I love watching someone experience a stooping peregrine for the first time. I love talking about wetlands and what Ducks Unlimited does to make sure that we won’t be the last generation entranced by the whistle and wingbeat of a thousand ducks. So that was where I was on the best hunt of the season.
I found myself in the kitchen at the clubhouse surrounded by a family of hunters. They were cooking lunch; duck chili, recently shot quail, duck and goose. I was immediately welcomed with hugs, a glass of wine pushed into my hand and became a component of the revelry. Gathered around the island in the kitchen the story-telling grew into a gregarious din that ultimately turned to the question of where we were going to fly the falcon.
Looking at a map of the property I couldn’t figure what body of water would be our best bet, so I left it to the patriarch and crossed my fingers the little falcon could pull something off. We headed out in a caravan of five cars and three generations and I was glad for the wine. Despite the laughter and camaraderie I had stage fright. I hated to disappoint.
Anakin didn’t disappoint.
The high fog had just broken, the sun breaking through in the mid-afternoon and the falcon took off and up, shining in the sun and left me grinning. 750 feet above the pond and with the entire family looking on, a drake gadwall lifted off the water and as it crossed a thick patch of tules, the falcon stooped and together they slammed through the reeds below.
Gary Zahm stood on the other side of the pond from me, camera in hand and somehow caught the moment of impact. I have seen a hunt like this a thousand times, but I know now I didn’t really “see” it. I knew it, registered small things that equaled big ones in ways I would never be able to articulate. I knew the falcon had held on to the duck all the way down. I knew he wasn’t coming out. I knew I would need to throw on my waders, trudge out and find them. So I did.
I didn’t want to think about the possibility of daredevil falcons and drowned birds, but I did, because you always do. I am always ready for it to be over, but fighting back tears just the same. He was never mine to keep. I’ve always known this. And when the signal clearly came from water-level I was certain this tempestuous love affair had at long-last come to an end.
Then I heard the jostle and chime of a falcon’s bell.
Deep in the tules I found the falcon, soaking wet, balancing in the reeds– a drake gadwall floating in the water beneath him.
I broke back through the aquatic jungle, emerging from the water with the falcon dripping on the glove, the duck cinched in my hand, surrounded by well-wishers and feeling as though I’d been baptized and embraced. The falcon won’t win forever, none of us do, but it’s the high that follows the low which makes it worth the fight. And when Gary showed me the photos, for the first time I truly SAW what the hunt looked like. It took my breath away.
It was truly the best of this year’s hunts… and did I mention there was wine?