I had one of those “interesting” hawking days last week, and thought you might like to hear about it.  Moira, Bridget, and I were vacationing in Kemmerer, Wyoming.  We spent part of each day hawking, and the rest of the day digging fish fossils, hiking, swimming, wildlife watching, etc.  The weather was fantastic (75F at midday, 40F in the morning, scattered clouds with a light breeze).


Wyoming is having an up cycle of cottontails and white-tailed jacks.  We had no trouble finding quarry in some pretty spectacular settings on public land.  We had lots of opportunities for my favorite kind of hawking – Harris’s hawks flying off cliffs at rabbits while we and the dogs worked the sage below.


We were flying two Harris’ hawks, my second-year female “Killer” (out of Lola) and Bridget’s second-year male “Neon” (out of WD-40).  Killer was still coming down from her 1320g molting weight, and was chasing fairly well but not as well as she is able.  Neon had been flying for the previous 3 weeks and was in top form: following well, taking excellent perches, and chasing everything in sight at any distance.  Both birds would fly to all three of us, and were working well with the dogs.


Just prior to our “exciting” day, Neon made his most spectacular catch ever.  We had been driving all day and were desperate to find a hawking spot before dark.  We drove past many miles of very sparse, short sage, but couldn’t find any of the good, thick stuff we were looking for.  Finally we gave up and picked a spot with tall, green cliffs alongside some of the short sage.  Killer had caught a mountain cottontail that morning, so we left her in the truck and took Neon out.  There was a nice upslope wind blowing, and we were hoping that Neon would take advantage of that to climb to the top of the green cliffs.  We expected the rabbits to be few and far between, so height would be essential.  Neon hopped out of his box onto Bridget’s fist, and soon the people, dogs, and hawk were strolling through the sage.  After a couple of minutes of walking, Neon became restless in the wind and headed off downwind for the cliffs.  As he approached the face of the cliff he banked, caught the updraft, and within seconds was just a dot at the top of the 100-foot rock wall.  Now we were hawking!


We continued to walk through the sage, with the dogs exploring every nook and cranny for a rabbit.  I heard Neon’s bell ring, and looked up to see him gliding steeply down towards us.  At first I was disappointed, figuring that he was leaving his superb vantage point to ride on our gloves.  As he got closer, he progressively folded his wings and soon was moving at a tremendous speed.  As I was watching him descend a movement caught my eye.  It was a desert cottontail sneaking through the sage, and undoubtedly was the reason that Neon had launched his gliding attack.  When the cottontail saw me it froze, caught between me and the hurtling Neon.  I waited until Neon was about 50 feet from the rabbit, then flushed the bunny from the sage.  Neon was going so fast that the rabbit was able to juke him on the first pass, but Neon pitched up high and winged over to catch the fleeing cottontail in a straightaway tailchase.  It really doesn’t get any better than that!


At sunrise a couple of days later, with Neon now having proven himself as a flashy gamehawk, we set out with a lot of confidence to hunt a spot we had found near a natural gas pumping station.  This spot was a gently-sloping hillside thickly carpeted with waist-high sage, absolutely crawling with mountain cottontails and a few jackrabbits.  Neon had caught several cottontails here on previous occasions, and had been bucked off a couple of jacks.  Moira and I took both Killer and Neon out to help deal with the thick sage.  Bridget slept in the back of the truck.  Everything looked great as the dogs crisscrossed through the sage ahead of me.  Moira was carrying Neon at the top of the hill, while Killer sat on the gas plant fence watching for an easy slip.


Within a minute of arriving at the hilltop, Neon’s head went up and he powered off Moira’s glove, headed straight downhill at maximum warp.  We couldn’t see the rabbit at all, but obviously he could.  The wind whistled through his bell slit as he passed me.  When he got to the spot where he had seen the rabbit, he used his momentum to pitch way up, looking over his shoulder.  He rolled over and put in a vertical stoop, with his wings tucked tight against his body.  We didn’t hear any brush breaking, or any rabbit squeal, but the stoop looked so good that I ran the 100 yards downhill just in case he had caught the rabbit.  When I arrived at the spot there was nothing – no hawk, no rabbit, no feathers, no fur.  Just two dog tails sticking out of a burrow, wagging furiously.


Well, I’m sure you have all caught rabbits as they went into holes.  I fully expected that when I pulled the dogs out of the entrance to the burrow I would find Neon with his wings back and legs stretched into to the hole, gripping the rabbit with his talons.  I grabbed the dogs by their stub tails and pulled them free.  No hawk in sight.  I reached in the burrow up to my shoulder – nothing.  The dogs were whining and digging, so I knew that the rabbit was down there, and I assumed that Neon was attached.


Now we had a problem.  Several problems, actually.  First, the burrow went almost straight down for 18 inches or so before slanting to the left and continuing downward at a shallower angle.  Second, it had not rained in this part of Wyoming for six months, and the ground was baked to the approximate hardness of diamonds.  Third, the hole was very small, and I was worried that Neon’s breathing might be constricted by the narrow walls of the burrow if he was pulled in deep by the rabbit.  Fourth, Neon’s real owner (Bridget) was asleep in the truck, and might not be very happy to hear that her pride and joy was now wedged into a dark, tight tunnel with no chance of being able to turn around or back out.


You might think that things could not really get worse, but they did.  On the way back to the truck to get my shovel (a small entrenching tool), I noticed that Killer was gone from her perch on the fence.  I whistled and called her without success.  From her perch on the fence she could have seen rabbits running for hundreds of yards in every direction.  Where was she?


In less than 10 minutes I had been transformed from a supremely confident falconer with two excellent hawks and a prime hunting field to a worried fellow with two empty hawk boxes and no real idea about how to refill them.  How on earth could all this have happened in the wide open spaces and trouble-free sagebrush of western Wyoming?


Moira volunteered to look for Killer while I dug for Neon.  Unfortunately the gas pumping plant had begun to operate, and the din from the pumps made it impossible to hear Killer’s bells.  The thick sage meant that every square inch would have to be examined to find her if she was on a kill.


I began to dig at the mouth of the burrow.  The flimsy entrenching tool was no match for the Wyoming concrete-like soil.  All I could do was use the shovel to chip away at the hole.  My hands were soon bleeding, and I was very concerned that the fine dust from my efforts would suffocate Neon even if he had survived so far.  After a half hour of constant digging (and gasping at the 7000-foot elevation) I could only reach another foot or so into the hole, and still felt nothing.  I was out of ideas for Neon, and had resigned myself to the realization that this burrow might be a tomb for both him and the rabbit.  Explaining all this to my nine-year-old daughter was something I dreaded.


I walked toward the gas pumping plant to help Moira look for Killer, hoping to go back to Washington with at least one of the hawks we left with.  Unlike our previous hunts at this spot, today there were some workers at the plant.  I approached one of them, Ed Vining, and asked him if I could look around inside the fence for Killer, since many of the cottontails ran inside to take cover in the maze of pipes, outbuildings, etc.  Ed was very sympathetic and gave me a tour of the grounds, but the throbbing of the gas pumps made conversation impossible.  We did not find Killer, and we could see that Moira was not having any better luck outside the fence.


On my way out of the gas plant, I mentioned Neon’s fate to Ed and asked him if he might have a decent shovel I could borrow.  He not only offered the use of his shovel and pick, but said that he had a couple of hours to spare before a meeting and would even help me dig.  When we arrived at Neon’s burrow, Ed looked a little skeptical that a hawk AND a rabbit could be in a burrow so small.  I had to tell Ed that I couldn’t be sure Neon was even in the hole.  With me manning the pick and Ed making the dirt fly with his shovel, 30 minutes later the entrance to the burrow was enlarged enough for me to get my whole upper body inside.  I still couldn’t feel anything.  I was getting pretty discouraged by this time, but Ed suggested digging a new hole a couple of feet forward from the entrance to the burrow.  I have no idea how he could get that shovel through the rock-hard ground, but he did.  It took another hour of constant work to break into the burrow from above and make enough room for me to reach in up to the shoulder.  Even now, with my hand 4 feet from the entrance to the burrow, I couldn’t feel Neon or the rabbit!


Two hours had passed since Neon’s disappearance, and I was pretty sure that it was hopeless.  We had created enough dust to choke a camel.  Still, after all the effort Ed had volunteered I decided to try the old Neil Smith trick – run a piece of barbed wire into the hole and see if I could pull out the rabbit with Neon attached.  At least we would have the hawk’s carcass to show for our labor.  Ed knew about an old barbwire fence line higher up the hill, so we headed up there.


About then I heard Moira whistle, and was overjoyed to see her with Killer in tow.  Killer had not in fact caught anything, but had just been goofing off.  Moira took her hunting while Ed and I had the unhappy task of trying to retrieve Neon’s remains.  Ed snaked the wire from the burrow entrance while I guided it from the second hole Ed had dug.  We didn’t hit the bottom of the burrow until 6 feet of wire had been shoved in.  A couple of twists on the wire and we pulled it out.  A few tufts of rabbit fur, soaked in blood, were stuck to the end of the wire.  Anxiously we ran the wire back down the burrow.  Ed wound it up tight, braced his feet against the burrow opening, and leaned back to pull hard.  There was a lot of resistance, but we made some progress until the wire finally broke free.  This time, instead of rabbit fur, the end of the wire was covered with a clump of feathers!  I had mixed emotions.  It was good to know that Neon’s body was really down there, but his lack of response to being pulled with the wire confirmed my suspicions that he must be dead.


Ed said that the wire broke loose near the second hole, so I reached in.  I could feel Neon’s leg, and pulled him free of the hole.  I expected him to be limp, but he was still alive, gasping, with his beak opening an closing spasmodically.  I assumed that he was gasping his last breath until I looked closer – he was gagging on rabbit meat!  His crop was so full that meat was backing out of his throat!


Miraculously, the wire had not caught him in any vital spot.  He had been hooked by the right shoulder, but had no broken bones, no bleeding, and not even a bent primary or tail feather!  He was not at all amused by being dragged off his rabbit, and footed me about 10 times on my bare hands.  I will be happy to carry the scars from that.  I guess he planned to camp out down there for a couple of days and eat his rabbit buffet from back-to-front.  Apparently he had not planned on how to get out of the hole after the feast.


Neon’s shoulder still has some funny-looking feathers sticking up at odd angles, but it doesn’t affect his flying in the slightest.  He caught a cottontail on his first hunt after returning to Washington.  I’m sure you can imagine how delighted we all are to have him back from the grave!


Needless to say, I thanked Ed profusely for his help.  What a guy!


This is just one more example of how falconry takes you on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, all within the space of a few minutes.  Luckily, this one ended on a high note.  Here’s hoping that all your stories have a happy outcome!


Toby Bradshaw

2 September 2000