Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hawking reminiscences

It's been bitingly cold and sunny today, and it snowed. Unusual snow for the fens, too! Dry grains like tiny polystyrene balls, pouring off scattered stormclouds in great, blowsy plumes. It's bitterly cold, and nothing seems further away than those long, leisurely days out hawking with my merlin last autumn. Ah, but hawking reminiscences are so good. You remember everything except the things that went wrong and the stress. Perfection! For non-falconers out there, merlins are tiny falcons, like little distilled peregrines. In Britain, their traditional quarry is the skylark. I have a special license to be able to fly larks, as falconers have done for centuries. And I love them just as much as merlins. This might be appallingly counter-intuitive to the non-hunter, but it's true in so many different ways. The season for lark-hawking is short—about six weeks in the autumn—and we hardly catch any larks as it is. And pretty much every day of those six weeks, I'm out with the merlin, getting muddy and grassy and slightly wild in the head. And then the season's over, and I become a library-haunter and bored again. I wrote these scraps right at the end of the season. It's strange reading them with snow in the air.

It’s getting to the end of the merlin season now. Argh. I think the merlin season has three stages: First: early days. Hot days, where you wait for late evening before wandering out across new, dusty stubble and are prone to being soaked in sudden thunderstorms. Then come calm, beautiful early-autumn days. Still, glacial sun, high flights and contemplative sunsets. Just when you forget that the weather had ever been different, it changes again: the end of September comes, the winds get high, the remaining stubble shrinks, and where it remains the larks rise up in the gusts like leaves and the lark-hawker gets morose. I suppose there’s some life-lesson offered from how short the season is, but I can’t see it. It just sucks.

Yesterday she decided she was a sparrowhawk and punched into a twelve-foot thick blackthorn hedge after her quarry. Leaves flew. You could hear sticks breaking from a good fifty paces away. I wandered up and listened to the hedgeline. Then crouched down and parted the branches at the very base of the bush ... ouch ... sloes dropping around me. There she was, looking VERY cross. As if she was standing on tiptoes, about to shout, ‘where is it? Where is it?!’. She was convinced this bird was gettable. That it was just here. I left it here. So she peered about, looking under branches and craning her neck around roots and leaf-litter, getting crosser and crosser in the semi-darkness. It’s not here any more, merlin I said, and reached in with a garnished fist. She jumped to it and I carefully extracted her, inch by inch, from the hedge. If the lark escapes, the lark escapes.

 So difficult for a merlin to make headway into this wind, which sends the larks up like chaff. Lots of birds though. Clouds of thirty or forty linnets bouncing about. Three or four corn buntings. The big flock of feral pigeons feeding on the far slope. Three days ago, she lost a lark in the air and then decided to give the pigeons hell. I’ve never seen anything like it with a merlin. Daft bird. She peeled off, flipped over and singled one out, and the variegated flock rose and scattered like dunlin. Whaaat? Trust me to have the only merlin in Britain that pretends to be a peregrine.

Today, she's in a spacious aviary up in Yorkshire with a male merlin. I'm hoping they'll breed. And I was thinking about my favourite falconry memory from last year. Strangely, it wasn't a flight. It was the time we were sitting in a clover field in Barton one late evening. I was feeding the merlin her evening meal at the end of an evening's hawking. Everything smelt of clover. And though the sun had just gone down, the air was still warm, and full of swifts and bats and insects, and I watched my merlin turn her head on one side to stare up at a heron creaking over on its way to roost. It turned its head, too, and looked at us, and then just carried on back home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely accounts. I am a merlin addict as well - especially for the ringing flight! I hope to read more of your adventures at some point. Cheers.