Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Peasoup


Weather is the master variable in falconry – it affects a raptor’s mood and motivation, their flight style and strategy, the behavior and location of the quarry, the difficulty or ease of the terrain, and quite importantly, visibility. One condition I had not been familiar with prior to my time in Scotland was fog. Often the hills in Scotland are beset by dreich weather, and not uncommonly, by thick impenetrable fog. It can roll in from seemingly nowhere and roll out just as quickly. Some hills you can hardly see your hands in front of you while neighboring hills offer wide clear stretches. Perhaps most frustrating in the perpetually overcast country, is that one never really knows what the weather is doing “up there” on the hill from the villages below.

There is always a lot of preparation that goes into a day's hawking. Our spirits quickly sink if, turning off the motorway and rumbling up the path to the moors, we notice the familiar hilltops hidden in fog.

Sometimes we elect to wait it out, crunched into the truck and listening to eagles shift impatiently in their boxes. Sometimes we admit defeat, pack it up and head home - vowing to take off school or work to return the next day. Other times, we stick a transmitter in the truck for safety, ready the eagles, and head out anyway. To hell with the weather.


We walk in clumps, in a bunched line spanning no more than twenty or thirty yards; there is little reason to flush hares if they aren’t visible to us all or could disappear into the haze in moments. In the wet weather they tend to sit tight, and require more pressure to leap from their forms in the heather. Covering flat areas, the person slipping the eagle walks in the middle – eyes strained and hand hovering over the hood. While normally a hare gaining a significant head start means little more than a longer flight, in this situation every second counts. Any delay on the falconer’s part could mean the hare is that much father and therefore fainter to the pursuing eagle.

I always found this very stressful. In a good sort of way. I remember vividly slipping an eagle and instead of temporarily rooting myself to the spot to watch the flight unfold, running behind in an attempt to keep the pair in view. Its pale form fading fast, the eagle corkscrewed downward. To me, it was just a silhouette - angles moving sharply against a gray sky – but it was fast and fluid. I stopped for a moment, saw he was back in the air, and this time could barely discern the eagle rowing upwards, half-folding his wings and again plummeting after the hare. The fog leaves just enough to the imagination. Big bulky golden eagles can maneuver exquisitely. Throw out the details and watch the shapes – eagles will surprise you.

Some flights can go awry, but others make for adventure. John slipped an eagle, which hugged the contours of the hill and followed a hare right off a sheer hillside into a winding creek below. As soon as the hill dropped off, the eagle began an arcing wingover into the valley. I peered over the edge to see John pulling an entangled eagle and hare up from the creek onto a grassy bank - and grinning widely.

These are often one-kill sorts of days. Goldens have good waterproofing, but repeated crashes into soaking heather in air so thick it is almost drizzling takes its toll. Not to mention the nagging feeling that you are pushing your luck. After retrieving an eagle, I’d look around and see nothing but monotonous grey. Shouting to the waiting falconers, I’d make my way back to the party. Similarly, the hawking party would look around and realize that little of the visible landscape gave clue to where the trucks were. Out comes the telemetry. We trudge back as Neil tracks the trucks, reveling in our few kills and recounting flights before heading home with a small sense of accomplishment.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Jetlagged


After five weeks crisscrossing China – I touched down in Chicago on Friday night. I had intended to blog while away, but discovered that Blogger.com was hidden behind the Great Firewall. With the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square only few weeks ago, on June 4th, the government cracked down on western media, networking sites and Internet forums with renewed vigor.

In fact, they flipped a switch shortly after I arrived in Xi’an. While watching the BBC in my dorm room, as well as a pair of azure-winged magpies out the window from the corner of my eye, the picture suddenly flickered and dissolved into static. I clicked to CNN, Deutsche Welle, a few Spanish language networks – static. China Central TV clicked on, as obnoxious and nasal as ever. It remained that way for my duration in the country. I never heard any mention of the so-called June 4th incident.

On my way to pick up Elaine yesterday, my friend had a 45 day old jerkin bouncing around the house. He’s a mellow, playful, ungainly creature, with tufts of down swaying on his head and a taste for killing socks and shoes. Over the weekend, while readjusting to the thirteen-hour time change and reflecting on the trip, I took to socializing the alternately excited and exhausted falcon. As I gather my thoughts - I'll start posting on the meanderings of my class through Xi'an, Kunming, Lijiang, Bejing and Shanghai.