The Georgia Falconry Association is a group of individuals dedicated to preserving the art and practice of falconry, as well as educating the public on the conservation, management and ecology of raptors. By pure good fortune, I happened to come across their website this past Friday and discovered that their annual event/hunt was taking place this weekend just 30 minutes from my home. I emailed the President of the association to inquire whether I could tag along and he invited me to show up the next morning.
I arrived at the hotel early and enjoyed some good conversation with others as we awaited instructions. After a quick group photo, those who would be attending as observers were assigned to those who would be hunting with their hawks. I joined the group that would be hunting with Red-Tailed Hawks at “The Chili Lady’s” property. Ms. Liz always makes a big batch of chili to feed the group at lunch and let me just say, it was very good.
After a few minutes of falconry etiquette at Ms. Liz’ home, we split into two groups and began the hunt. Not exactly sure of what gear I might need, I decided to take the 500mm mounted on a tripod, along with a 70-200/2.8 slung over my shoulder. The members in my group split up and began walking through the Georgia timber, trying to locate a squirrel. The hawk flew from tree to tree in pursuit. We had been instructed to yell “Ho, Ho, Ho” at the sight of a squirrel and it wasn’t long before someone in the group sounded out. Everyone, bird included, rallied to that person. The squirrel, meanwhile, was scurrying from branch to branch, and tree to tree, trying to evade the hawk.
At one point, it bailed out of the tree and plummeted 30 feet to the ground. The hawk quickly followed and pounced on the squirrel. I was sure that was it, when suddenly, the squirrel darted off. It quickly climbed a tree and went into its nest. The falconers in the group fired their slingshots at the tree/nest, trying to get the squirrel to come out but this was one elusive, smart, and fortunate squirrel. It had no intentions of coming out. To my surprise, this squirrel got away.
We regrouped at Ms. Liz’ home, got another hawk, and went back in the timber. Ho, Ho, Ho! rang out ahead and soon we were watching the events unfold anew. The squirrel’s ability to maneuver through the trees was impressive. Time after time, the hawks were coming up short. Often, the squirrels would hug the trees so close that even the hawks had a hard time seeing them. To try and flush out the squirrel, the hawks employ a “laddering” maneuver, jumping from one branch to another as they climb through the tree. Though not always successful, the hawk will eventually get its kill. One slight miscalculation or mistake by the squirrel and the hawk will quickly snatch it in its talons and once that happens, it’s lights out.
Once the hawks have their prey on the ground, the falconers place a towel over the squirrel and spend some time getting the hawks to loosen their talons and let it go. They do give them some meat to reward the effort but as I understand it, they will feed that squirrel to the hawks later at their enclosures. I believe this is to avoid a full-bellied bird from flying away and not returning. It takes some effort on the part of the falconer to convince the hawks to let go of the squirrel, but the hawks eventually release their prey and eat the tasty morsel given to them by the falconers.
After a successful morning hunt, we would return to Ms. Liz’ house for lunch, then regroup with another hawk and hunt the afternoon on a different part of her property. I would leave the 500mm in the vehicle this time as the 70-200/2.8 (I used mine with a 1.4x converter) is better suited for this type of photography. It’s not a bad idea to carry a wide angle lens too but I opted to leave that behind as well. Soon we were trekking through the countryside and the sounds of Ho Ho Ho would ring through the hardwoods twice more. Watching those hawks hunt, and the resiliency of the squirrels, was impressive. I had never witnessed this type of event and felt lucky to be a part it. I gained a new respect for the falconer and the sport of falconry. As the day came to an end, we gathered around the vehicles, exchanged our good byes, then went our separate ways. It was a day to remember.