“Never work with children or animals” is the old adage… "or birds of prey", might be a pertinent addition to this advice!!
Despite the many, many hours that the falconry team spend training and bonding with the sanctuary’s resident birds, they remain essentially wild creatures and, thus, unpredictable.
Before each period of exercise or the flying demonstrations we give at the Centre between Easter and October, our falconers spend much time carefully assessing the birds that will participate, checking for weight and condition and keeping an eye on possible weather interruptions.
But even then, there will still be instances when flights don’t go to plan!
Such was the case recently with April, one of the centre’s older (and one would presume wiser!) Lanner Falcons. One afternoon, conditions appeared to be ideal for 8 year old April to enjoy a few relaxed turns around the flying ground and then to work with one of the falconers practicing his lure swinging technique.
Bird and handler were working in perfect synergy, with April making some nice flights in to the lure and being rewarded for her efforts. Between flights, she would pick a high vantage point to observe her surroundings and during one such lull in activity, she spotted a dog being exercised by its owner in a field on the adjacent farm
This was enough to send April into a panic and she lost no time in escaping from the perceived threat… and she flew… and she flew… and she flew…..!
Whether she was just enjoying the unusually balmy weather conditions - or lost track of time! - April showed no sign of turning back to the centre.
Luckily, the falconry team are always vigilant to the possibility of such absconding and April had been fitted with telemetry in advance of her exercise session. This consists of a small radio transmitter fitted to the anklet of the bird and a portable receiver which the falconers can use to track the position of the absconder as it moves from place to place..
Telemetry is fitted to all eagles and falcons that are flown free at the sanctuary, as these are the most likely candidates for springing aerial surprises. Experience has taught us that many miles of tramping the countryside and hours of fruitless searching can be saved by the telemetry equipment, which in many ways is a modern equivalent to the traditional bell which many falconers still use as an audible signal as to a bird's location.
And so the falconers embarked on tracking April late into the evening, as the signal from her transmitter ebbed and flowed frustratingly for hour after hour… now a strong signal heralding her presence nearby… now a faint whisper drifting off into the distance as she flew further away.
Over several hours, the falconers tracked April from the Sanctuary to a church 10 miles away, then a supermarket another 5 miles distant, thence onwards to another location a mile further on… and there the signal faded.
At 9.00p.m. cold, weary staff members the some of the volunteers who had joined them reluctantly decided to abandon the search and reconvene in the early morning when April would be hungry!
It is always disappointing to have to make the decision to leave a bird out overnight - captive bred birds are unwilling to fend well for themselves in the wild as they are accustomed to the falconers being their primary food source. However, in this instance, the team were aware that April was in the vicinity and confident that she would not travel far at night.
At 6.00a.m. the next morning, the team resumed their search at the point they left off, and within an hour had picked up a strong, consistent telemetry signal from the grounds of a local factory. After gaining access from a helpful security guard, one of the falconers decided to give the lure a swing and April was on it immediately - normal room service was resumed!!
Happily, this sort of chase across the countryside is not a regular occurrence, but an occasional reminder that birds do have a mind of their own and it does happen from time to time. Although at her age April should know better, like any other 8 year old she doubtless enjoyed her little adventure initially, but was secretly relieved to see her parents turn up to take her home!!!