July 7, 2013

Falconer shares joys of 'extreme birding'

Hunting with a bird of prey requires years of training – and recognition of the bird's wild nature.

By KEITH EDWARDS Kennebec Journal

RICHMOND - Larry Barnes' duck hunting partner doesn't shoot a gun, doesn't have a name and is only half the size of the quarry they seek together.

click image to enlarge

A Peale’s peregrine falcon, eats a piece of quail at the start of Larry Barnes’ presentation Saturday at the boathouse on Swan Island.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

She doesn't retrieve, either. She's a bird of prey, an approximately 5-year-old Peale's peregrine falcon, not a retriever, Barnes told about 30 people gathered Saturday on Swan Island afternoon for a presentation on falconry. She's also not a pet.

"We hunt ducks in salt marsh," Barnes said of the bird, which perched comfortably on his gloved fist. "She knows if she takes a position above me, I'll flush a duck out of the marsh. She'll dive and try to catch it. She'll take it to the ground. She can't carry it -- the ducks outweigh her 2 to 1. She's not a retriever. In five seasons, she's become a very, very proficient duck hunter. She's hunted these covers several years now. She knows where she is and what she's doing."

The bird, which alertly kept watch on the river outside the boathouse, was the featured attraction on Swan Island Saturday afternoon, drawing numerous visitors for Barnes' presentation on the birds and how he hunts with them.

Some residents of Swan Island -- bald eagles -- fortunately weren't present for the talk, as the two different species of birds of prey fight about hunting territory and prey, and peregrine falcons -- even those hunting with a person -- have been killed by eagles.

"She's been almost killed at least dozen times," Barnes said. "Eagles are the pinnacle birds of prey for a reason. There are a lot in Maine right now. Eagles are a big problem, but I don't hold it against the eagles. They're looking to kill the competition (for food). The closest call we've had involved an eagle above me, and upwind, that I didn't know was there. I released (the peregrine falcon). He dove and missed her by maybe a foot. She got away and came back to me."

Barnes, of Wiscasset, doesn't name the birds he trains because, he notes, they are wild animals, not pets. The birds of prey hunt with him and return to him when he blows a whistle when the hunting is done, because they consider him a good food source and helpful hunter, not a friend.

He attaches a transmitter to the bird's tail, but said the bird generally comes back on its own.

The only time the bird flies free is when it is hunting or training.

He said he considers their activity together to be sustenance, not sport, hunting. They both eat the ducks they kill as a team, but not together. The bird eats immediately, in the field, as she would in the wild to prevent losing the meat to another predator.

"It's been called extreme birding," he said of falconry. "It's rare to see a peregrine falcon hunt in the wild. That's what I do on a daily basis in the winter. You see some great flying. "

Barnes said there are about a dozen practicing falconers in Maine. He said the activity requires years of training, time spent as an apprentice, successful completion of a written test, and a state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife-inspected living facility for the birds.

He said he takes the peregrine to presentations to teach people about the animals and nature in general, including the need to conserve the natural environment.

The falcon, wearing a tiny leather hood to cover its eyes, rode on Barnes' fist, uncaged but tethered, on the brief boat ride to Swan Island for the presentation at the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area.

The bird screeched loudly at the sight of the hood, as it was put on its head by Barnes, and shortly after it was on, but calmed and quieted down quickly once it was in place for the return trip off the island.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

kedwards@centralmaine.com

 

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