Is there anything more wondrous than launching a falcon from your wrist, watching him soar into the sky and land where he wishes — and then having him return to you with a gentle pounce back on his perch and gobble a treat out of your gloved hand? Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by the ancient sport of falconry but never expected to fly a hawk myself until I discovered Ireland’s School of Falconry on the magnificent grounds of Ashford Castle and booked their Hawk Walk.
Our adventure began with a stay at this eight-centuries-old castle, once the home of the Guinness family. Most recently used by the family as a hunting and fishing lodge, the castle is situated on Lough Corrib in western Ireland. The staff and ambience made us feel as though we had been invited for the weekend to Downton Abbey. It seemed quite normal to be heading to the mews where hawks are kept through the manicured castle grounds in a misting rain.
Our falconer, a woman from Brittany named Mel — short for Melisandre — met us and fitted my arm with a leather gauntlet, then went to fetch Beckett. This handsome Harris’s hawk weighed about a pound and a half and had warm brown plumage with chestnut shoulders and wing linings. I felt a connection as soon as she transferred him to my arm.
“Each bird has a distinct personality,” she said. “For instance, Beckett is afraid of things with wheels, like bikes and strollers.” Just then Beckett startled and fluttered his wings. Mel motioned me to stay still and nodded to a bike leaning against the wall. “Pull him toward your chest until we’re past it,” she said, and he calmed.
We strolled through a gate and off through the 350 acres of old-growth woodland. As Beckett ruffled his silky feathers I sensed how ready he was to fly.
The art of falconry is a delicate balance of keeping the bird hungry enough to keep coming back for the easy reward of delicious morsels instead of escaping to forage for himself. In the end, though, the choice to return lies with the bird.
Like all birds of prey, Beckett had the ability to spot targets the size of a rabbit a mile away as well as maintain focus while in fast pursuit. But for the moment he seemed content to remain tethered to my arm, his yellow feet with their sharp, ebony talons clutching my glove. Mel had threaded his jesses — the thin leather straps on both legs that the falconer holds that are also used to tie the bird to his perch — under my thumb. When we reached a clearing, Mel demonstrated how to loosen my grip on the jesses and extend my arm to release him to fly. Up wheeled Beckett, the bells on the straps jangling in joy. My heart clenched with worry that he would keep going. He flew fast and free before landing on a faraway limb. Mel scooped something furry out of her bag and pressed it into my open palm. Beckett found this rodent tidbit irresistible and swooped toward me with all deliberate speed, his beak reaching for it just as he alighted on my arm.
“Don’t make a fist yet,” Mel said. “He loves to sip the last drop of juice.”
She went on to explain that both the hawks and their food are weighed daily. Beckett had to be hungry when flown to ensure his swift return.
Once inside a walled-garden with moss-covered tree trunks that looked like the setting for a fairy tale, Mel signaled for me to raise my left arm and he was off again, this time disappearing into the patchwork of fluttery leaves. She slipped a chicken part into my hand and I offered it up hopefully. Beckett fluttered out of his hiding place and magnificently plunged and landed with so much force that my arm buckled slightly. With one gulp the snack was gone. Beckett blinked at me in what I took as thanks.
The raptor and I fell into a rhythm of walking, release, flying and tempting him back for a treat. The rapport between the clever falcon and the apprentice falconer felt extraordinary. I loved the beat of his wings as he soared to freedom and the “whoosh” as he glided toward me. Once all his treats were consumed, he settled back on my glove with a satisfied thud.
But Mel had one more delight for me. She brought out Dingle, a huge Eurasian eagle-owl with a wingspan of 6 feet. He had fuzzy ear tufts, gleaming orange eyes and weighed about 4 pounds.
“Dingle came to us as chick 20 years ago,” Mel said. “He’s one of the elders here.”
Before Mel walked down a long, enclosed corridor, she positioned me and showed me how to angle my arm. When she released Dingle, he swooped low to the ground before flying up and onto my arm, where he landed with an audible thud. He swiveled his head and gave me a shrewd look as though he knew I had just had one of the best days of my life.
WHEN YOU GO
Ashford Castle, Cong, Mayo County, Ireland: www.ashfordcastle.com
Ireland School of Falconry: www.falconry.ie