Updated: Mar 30, 2021
There's a lot of 'tracking & testing' in the world at the moment but I thought it would be different to detail my journey over the past 4 days of 'tracking & chasing'.......that of a falcon who decided to go awol!!!
Day 1- AWOL day
My Thursday morning therapy session with the birds was going really well. The session had just finished and I decided to extend the session by inviting my client to help me fly Kalil - beautiful Gyr/Saker falcon. He has been flying free every day for the past 2 weeks and weighing him in the morning showed he should be super keen as he was half an ounce lighter....fabulous....no! The wind was picking up through the morning and I hadn't really appreciated how gusting the wind would be when he went up. He went up and away......with the wind taking him up and away from the farm.
Like any falconer when your bird goes, out comes the telemetry (tracking system) and you follow the bird to where you last saw it, then track and chase! Just happens that I fly near the top of Smeatharpe, an old airfield site......so yes great views all around, yes very windy, and yes easy to spot where falcon might have gone. Hurriedly said my goodbyes to my client, jumped in the car and headed the way the wind had taken him....towards Smeatharpe. With the help of my apprentice Le'ah (this was to be her 'jump into the deep end' re falconry!), we tracked him to initially trees on the airfield site, then he moved behind Smeatharpe village, sitting quite happily in a large Ash tree. Tried swinging the lure (with yummy food on there for him), to find he was pretty shaken up by the wind and refused to move or acknowledge me.
Having a bird not come down to you at the end of a session is a worrying time indeed. I sat under this tree waiting, and waiting......my apprentice Le'ah stayed and waited whilst I drove home and sorted out the other birds, and grabbed some food, and then came back to find he was still in the same tree. I stayed out watching that tree until 6.30pm. It was dark when I left, and I left only because he decided to fly on in the dusk/dark light and I couldn't see him. I would have to come back at first light.
Now for some of you, you probably think radio-tag on bird, radio-telemetry in falconers hand, tracking and finding bird piece of cake. Well it is until you have big barns in the way that bounce the signal, valleys and hills that hide and bounce signal - so initially it is a process of elimination. If you find a stronger signal one way, you drive to where you get the signal going back, therefore you know the bird is somewhere in that vicinity....circling and tracking until your circle gets so small, and the radio-telemetry is almost bouncing in your hand, you can jump out of the car and walk across fields. With two people this is easy.....with just me it gets tedious stopping and starting the car. And those of you really technically minded...what about a GPS tracking system? Well yes there are GPS tracking systems out there, that rely on a good phone signal.....sorry but in Somerset and Devon my phone loses signal a lot in the valleys!
Also, let me give you a background of this falcon - I took on this falcon as a rescue. When I got him he had no tail feathers, every wing feather was badly damaged and the worst of it his keel was smashed in from being kept on a concrete floor......so veterinary intervention and an enormous amount of my time was needed to rehabilitate this bird back to health and perfect plumage. Every vet I approached to help me with this bird said I should put him to sleep he was in such a state.....I didn't, I persevered and found a vet that helped him. Told he probably wouldn't be able to fly properly - well I sorted that theory out after 18 months......and he has proven that he certainly can fly now! He's also been near to death 2 other times as well and I have done everything in my power and stayed with him to make sure he pulls through. Kalil is coming up for 10 years old.....in the 9 years I have worked with him he has only ever gone off once, and that was early on in his flying time when he was 3 years old. Other than that he flies free and enjoys everything we do together. He doesn't hunt because of the extensive damage he has had to his keel so he would never be able to feed for himself...hence the need to get him back home.
I worried that night.....had to make arrangements for dog sitting, and had to work out feeding arrangements for the other birds too. I was meant to get food shopping that afternoon and a number of things planned...teaching zoom workshops and events all had to be cancelled. As you can imagine I didn't get much in the way of sleep and was up at 4am and out the door by 4.30am back up at Smeatharpe.
It had been really gusty that night and very wet, so was hoping he hadn't moved far. The drive to Smeatharpe was amazing. Light was just starting to filter through and I was escorted along the road for about 200m by a beautiful Barn Owl. Got to the airfield again and checked, yes he was still in the area, I now just had to find him. And I found him sitting in a tree about 1km away from where I left him last night. It had been really wet that night so he was sitting on a branch drip drying his wings. I'd have to wait for him to dry out, and unfortunately for me (and him) the wind was going to be a problem today...very gusty. All day the wind was due to be gusty so not great for a weak falcon, and one that was completely spooked by the wind. Tried calling him down and he wasn't interested....so sat and waited, and watched the multitude of wildlife coming to and fro completely unaware of what was going on in front of them. Rabbit, deer, mice and little birds all getting ready for the new day. By 7am he was off and I had the job of walking back to the van (5 fields away), getting in and chasing the tracking signal.
Next stop Higher Luxton (getting close to Churchinford)....it had started to rain and the wind was really picking up. Managed to walk through several fields, get through a hedge that perhaps I shouldn't have (managed to crack 2 ribs as I fell onto a Beech hedge instead of gently lowering myself down!), and finally found him sitting at the top of a tree holding on for dear life as the rain and wind buffeted him. Realised he wasn't going to be moving far anytime soon so headed back through the fields (this time I crawled under said hedge), into van and sat where I could see him in the comfort of the van.
Now I had another problem I needed to get the birds out at home. So a friend arrived and stayed on watch duty whilst I went home, got all the birds out and fed them, gathered some more food (for me) and headed back out. As I was nearly at the spot my friend was in his car looking a bit frantic. Turns out Kalil had flown off about 10mins before I arrived and was on the move again.
This time the signal was really weak, but I had him, just. So thanked friend and continued the way the radio-telemetry signal was the strongest. Now joined on route by Le'ah and we spent the first hour together tracking him......he wasn't that far away but the land is up and down in this part of the world and you need a good height to determine the radio signal. We tracked him down on a valley side, in a tree, enjoying the sun! Must admit walking across the fields to find him that Friday morning was truly amazing...the views were incredible.
But he didn't stay there all day or come down to the lure. He always managed to land high up in the trees and there just wasn't enough space to bring him down. Just after 2pm he went off, and realising he was always going NE looked at the map, and drove in that direction; frequently stopping just to make sure the signal was in front of me or in the NE direction.
On stopping at a couple of places people would come out and ask what I was doing, and it makes me chuckle, now thinking back, at people's responses.
From person "What are you doing?" or "what is that?" referring to the receiver in my hand.......
me "I have a lost falcon that I'm tracking",
person "a what?"
Not every day someone happens across the roads looking for a falcon. I also met some amazing people who were or still are falconers. On this day I happened to stop and check the telemetry and a chap came out and mentioned he bred owls, not really into falcons as they always go off!! Yes I know that, but still love them dearly.
By 3.30pm I had tracked him to the edge of a conifer plantation at the edge of the Otterhead Estate. Problem here was that he was 2-3m from the top of the trees and there was no where to call him down. So I sat and watched the world around me for a couple of hours. Deciding he probably wasn't going to go much further I left for home, bought food, had a shower and hot meal and to bed early for the next early start!
Started with a friend I have known for years who used to help me out when I managed a falconry centre, and helped out when I ran falconry clubs....so having someone next to me in the car that could also jump out and get a reading was fab! Also 2 sets of eyes looking for a white falcon helps enormously, and moral support from someone who knows you....and she also provided lots of entertainment throughout.
We started the search back at Otterhead - no signal. So remembering the winds were SW he would be NE from where we were standing. So we drove to an area that we could see far into the distance - yes signal, faint. So off we drove...to an area called Birchwood, and here we found him (eventually, thanks to Carolyn looking down instead of me looking up high!). Here he was really close to the ground, so I should be able to call him easily, surely......no he wasn't having any of it, he went up high....and sat. Waiting game once more. Beautiful sunny day and moderate wind, if fact in some areas no wind so fingers crossed he would come home today.
And then he flew off, up over our heads, over the ridge into the distance; I couldn't see where. Back in the car and onto the next stopping place - Buckland Farm. Here he had landed on the edge of a small copse of trees. Getting to him wasn't easy. The direct route involved going through a small field with a lot of cows and one massive bull - no! So we went around the field into the copse. The copse was probably the most boggiest part of woodland I have ever walked across. With Carolyn behind me she followed where I was walking through the woods.....Kalil was on the outer edge. Easier to walk through wood then go around I thought. Then I heard 'fuck!' looked around and for a few seconds I couldn't work out where Carolyns leg had gone..,then I realised she had done a 'Dawn French' on me. Her right leg, up to her knee was completely submerged in the bog and she couldn't get her foot free. What followed was certainly the funniest thing if you were there......Carolyn trying to get her leg free, whilst trying in vain to get a foothold (failing fast) to use her other leg to lever herself up, whilst me standing next to her couldn't stop laughing, and was offering no support at all because I was laughing so much. Eventually she managed to kneel on the ground and pull herself forward enough to wiggle the leg free.....bringing up welly filled with wet bog! And light coloured trousers that in no way could ever be their original colour again!!
Left Carolyn sitting comfortably, if not a bit smelly and wet on a dry area whilst I made it over to Kalil. Still too high up in the trees but with the sun shining I thought he would come down this time. Unfortunately the field in front of the tree was long grass....so when the lure came down he wouldn't be able to see the food on the lure...not sure it would work. I decided to go into the field and try anyway. My one problem in getting there was that there was a 2m drop from the wood edge, a ditch (smelly brown water) before I could get to the field, and the ditch was over a metre across. Now in my head I thought I could jump this no problem (obviously thinking my younger self would have no problem with this one)....I slid down the bank, jumped and landed with one leg completely submerged in the brown goo of the ditch and the other leg frantically trying to keep hold so I didn't go in myself. Carolyn got payback! And did he come down - no. After a couple of hours of sunning himself he decided to fly off, again NE from where we were standing.
This is where the fun of telemetry and hills comes in. His signal took us to the edge of the Blackdown Hills looking down towards Staple Fitzpaine. At the top of the Blackdowns the signal was really strong in one direction....towards Staple Fitzpaine so after a brief double check walking to the edge to make sure, we drove down the hill. We stopped half-way down to make sure I was getting the correct bearings and managed to surprise 2 workman in a field, totally gobsmacked at what we were doing....and probably the sight of us both too. When you start tracking and chasing birds its not glamorous, falconry for me has never been glamorous. Carolyn looked like she had been dipped in mud from knees down, and although I had dark clothing on I was still muddy and probably smelled worse than Carolyn.
Off we went in the direction of Staple Fitzpaine and found him in a tree, quite high up again on the edge of a single tracked road....and the wind had started up again, so he moved on this time on the ridge behind Staple Fitzpaine. A happened chance meeting with a falconer provided me with plenty of confidence that I would get him back, just keep tracking him. So up the ridge we went in search of my falcon. I found him again, this time lot lower down and yes he was keen for food! Started to swing the lure and he came in for it, and just when he was within 1m off the ground a gust of wind took him up high. Back he came again and again and again...each time the wind taking him up and away. He eventually tired and the wind took him behind me several fields away.....so off I went again. Problem now was the wind was really gusty again, I had a tired falcon that had now landed high in the tree, and within a couple of hours it would be dark....what about the other birds and food for me. I waited and tried to call him down and eventually at 5.30pm had to walk away and come home. Hot food and hot bath were needed to get myself ready for another day.
Got up at 4am and drove in the dark on my own to find Kalil. Went near to Staple Fitzpaine before I turned on the telemetry system. Signal wasn't where I had left him but to the right of where he had been, between Orchard Portman and Corfe. Found him in a tree, again high up and the wind was strong today, so I needed him to be low down and near fields where I could bring him in. The fields in this area where already knee high rape seed! So I sat and talked to him and wandered along the stream bank below him looking at the wild garlic, the flowers and insects out that morning. Several deer came by, as did a fox and lots of little birds not sure whether Kalil was a predator or friend.
My apprentice Le'ah turned up at 11am just in time to see him fly past into the NE again. He stopped briefly on the edge of a livery yard...and yes proved keen for food when we turned up and yes came into the lure, but not quite the confidence to take the lure. He was tiring too, showing signs of slight drop in his left wing. I needed to get him in. Then something Le'ah said reminded me of how Kalil was behaving just like some of my clients.....when people have lived through trauma, they easily go into the freeze response - the dysregulated response of years of living with trauma. When I work with clients that have this response to certain stimuli I quietly talk to them, hold their hands, count them back into their bodies, get them to use their senses one by one to bring them back into a safe place and come out of that freeze response. Kalil was showing the same signs - eager for food, coming into the lure, then getting spooked, landing in the tree and freezing in place, blocking out all activities before him and only concentrating on the wind, the birds around him...the panic state. I walked away, came back 30mins later he was still in that freeze response. Then he moved on.
This time to a massive tree situated on a private gated estate on the edge of Stoke St Mary. In order to make sure he was definitely in that huge tree I would have to get permission from the landowners - which I did. I must have looked a sight, as owners met me when I parked up, they were really keen to see this falcon. I pointed to the tree - a very exotic cedar, the tallest tree around, and Kalil was 3m from the top of this tree. The wind was gusty and there was no way he was coming down from there. I even tried walking into the next field to call him down, nope he had gone into freeze response and eventually after an hour off he went. Owners of the estate were lovely and wanted to know everything about what I was doing. Gave them a brief summary and mentioned I needed to find him before the end of the day...and off I went again!
Now he was heading directly NE, up towards the Levels - the one place I didn't want him to land as there aren't many roads around there and it would mean walking for miles. My energy levels were starting to really struggle - I have adrenal insufficiency which means my adrenal glands don't produce the cortisol necessary to deal with normal living never mind stressful living I was going through; so I have to take steroids every day in order to stay alive. I had worked out I needed to double my steroid dose to see me through each day - these were really stressful conditions, but I could feel that even double dose might not be enough.
The next tracking was the hardest part for me. I was exhausted, sad that I hadn't got him, struggling with the realisation that perhaps after always being there for him each time he had come to near-death that this time it was his decision and not mine....I needed to let him go! But I made a decision that morning that I would only give up when the radio-tag stopped working....so I kept going. The wind was horrendous....so, so strong. I drove over the A358, over Northfalcon, onto the edge of the Moors and got the faintest of signals. But kept going. Stopped at Bird Farm, went up Falcon avenue, met a home with Falcon's rest on the gate.......someone was having a laugh!
I was at my lowest now. Driving out of North Curry on the Levels road I stopped half way along. In floods of tears I tried the telemetry again and a really faint signal in front....and then an egret flew down in the road and walked around me to my right and behind. Now I still had the telemetry system on and the damn thing nearly jumped out of my hand when I turned round. The one thing I had been doing all day was checking behind me...I always check 360 degrees when tracking. I was tired and forgot to check. He was behind me at North Curry and really there! Off I went to the church at North Curry and the signal was really strong. Crows were going crazy in the pine trees to the side of church, but weren't attacking anything so he wasn't there, but he was close. Then I realised he was in someones garden so kindly asked permission from owner if I could access the garden to look for my flacon. 'Your what?'...had to explain again. In the garden I saw him......actually sitting on a lower branch in the field directly behind the owners garden. Couldn't climb the fence separating the two so legged it round through the churchyard and into the field.
Kalil was sitting on a branch 4 m up from the ground, and I was standing on a slope. There was another thicker branch about 1m below him that I could hopefully get the lure onto. And thats what I did. Several attempts to get the lure on there but it worked! Lure with loads of food sat on lower branch...Kalil very hungry so within 5 mins decides to drop down onto branch and grab food....I pull on lure and bring him to the ground (very unceremoniously)......go up to bird and he steps onto the glove with one foot and the other foot holds onto the food.....I had him back on the glove. Equipment on and then emotional outburst!! I do apologise to the couple walking past me at this point who looked like they were about to come and ask me what the bird was and decided they had better stay clear. All the pent up emotions of the last 4 days caught up with me and I had to have that release.
Now the hard part. I allowed him to have a small amount of food. You can't gorge a bird that is tired and hungry as they might not have enough energy to digest that food and produce a pellet the next day. So got him home, and really checked him over. Left wing is sore but not fractured or broken. He is really low in weight so starting today he is having 3 meals a day of stripped food (Quail and mice - really build him back up), with probiotics. And I just have to watch that the stress of his journey doesn't take its toll. A lot of tlc for the next few weeks and definitely no flying, for a while anyway. He decided to come back.
Energy medicine wise this has been a massive teaching for me with lots of lessons, some very personal lessons that I needed to go through, and more importantly the lesson of unconditional love. I love my birds and will do anything to make sure they are safe, found, treated with the greatest respect. I co-work with them I do not own them....at the end of the day these birds are wild at heart and they have chosen to work with me - an honour and deepest gratitude to them for allowing me to do this.
A big thank you to Le'ah, Carolyn, Andy, and all those that have txt me, called to make sure Kalil and I are ok, and offered help.....thank you, thank you, thank you, xxx.
This morning my body looks like its been physically beaten up - bruises in places I shouldn't have bruises, cuts everywhere from barbed wire fences, thorns everywhere (yes everywhere!) and joints that are taking a bit longer to get moving. The cracked ribs are going to take a while to heal but I'm feeling relieved that my feathered friend is sitting in his mews and back with the gang.
Being a falconer is never, ever boring!!
Thanks for reading,