Brian and the start of his Falconry journey with an injured female Kestrel (Nov '70)
My late father had two hobbies of golf and fishing, though was not very proficient at either. I came to detest golf with a passion, because as the eldest son I generally had to carry his bag of golf clubs if he played at the local golf course. However I did enjoy fishing as my late father tended to go to relatively remote locations to fish for brown or sea trout. While I haven’t truly fished since my early teens, those fishing trips and the connection with the wild were most influential, with one trip being directly responsible for sparking a greater interest in birds of prey that ultimately led to an awareness of falconry.
The season was mid summer and I can recall that the weather had been raining for many days. My late father at that time had been working many un-social hours involved in the overhaul of some petro-chemical piece of ‘plant’. As such (and with the project just about to enter the commissioning phase) he decided to go away on a short fishing trip. He wanted time on his own, but given my perseverance (and with a little help from my mother, who was struggling to keep two young boys occupied in-doors in the poor weather conditions), he agreed to take me along.
The trip was to the north west of Scotland and the quarry was brown trout in a favoured lochan (definition : small hill loch). In spite of the passing years I can still recall a lot of the details relating to that trip such as the weather improving as we headed northwards, the single track roads with passing bays, the location of our ‘base camp’, the paraffin fuelled brass primus stove as used to heat our meals, etc… And the trip was made all the more exciting as I was going to use my fly rod (a Christmas gift) for the first time.
The scene as we exited the car to prepare for our evenings’ fishing was of picture post card beauty, with mountains rising steeply on either side of a narrow valley floor and back-dropped against a blue cloudless sky. We progressed up the glen, keeping to the right hand side and trying to keep in the sunlight. As we made our way we encountered areas that were quite bogy and were thankful for the strategically placed corrugated metal sheets. My late father informed these bogs were quite treacherous and that a man could easily sink up to his chest and so struggle to get out without assistance. It goes without saying (and given the weather had been relatively poor of late) that I did not like the idea of being consumed by these bogs and so shadowed my fathers’ every move and footstep.
After about half an hour the narrow valley broadened out and in doing so revealed a reasonably sized lochan in the distance. We stopped and as we looked out my late father fingered the air to indicate the general area where we were going to fish. This was an area with little reed growth and so perfect for my fishing from the “shallows”.
While fish were seen to be jumping as we tackled up, we had no luck that evening in spite of countless fly changes. But it was simply great to be outdoors, in great weather and using my new rod. I kept practising my 10 to 2 casting technique, though my arm soon began to tire. As such my casts got fewer, my attention drifted and I started to look around to take in the scenery.
I am unsure when I first became aware of being watched, though something took my gaze upwards and to the tops of the surrounding mountains. There I saw a bird of large proportions appear, though only to disappear behind the ridge after a few seconds. And the bird appeared to fly without ever having to beat a wing. It re-appeared momentarily and I was fascinated. What was it? It was a bird of prey, but was it an eagle? Or was it a buzzard? While gaining only further glimpses, this bird did appear to have a vast and broad wing-span.
My late father had noted my waning enthusiasm and asked if I wished to change equipment and use my spinning rod and reel. I declined, though took the opportunity to stop fishing and to walk over to talk to him. Just then the bird re-appeared and I pointed to the sky and asked him if it was an eagle. He confirmed this and while I was just a little sceptical given his quick response, he provided additional supporting information that had me hanging on every word. He went on to tell me that the eagles had been here for many years and indeed bred in this glen, though not necessarily being successful each year. He mentioned that the bird was probably the male eagle and was simply keeping an eye on our presence and movement within his territory and that this behaviour indicated he was probably protecting his family. This was all thought provoking stuff for such a young mind and as such I was lining up a batch of other questions, though they all were lost after hearing the next ‘slice of information’. My late father expanded by informing that the eagles generally bred ‘over there’ (and he pointed to the other side of the lochan) and their nest, termed an eyrie, was a very, very large structure and as situated about half way up the mountain side. He let it slip that he had been taken there a few years previously and mentioned one could almost walk into the eyrie.
The fishing was now forgotten about and my focus was on that distant steep mountain side as I tried to determine the location of this large eyrie in the receding evening light. I had only ever seen photographs of eagles and was desperate to have a closer look. Hesitantly I asked my late father if we may take a detour on the way back to the car so that I may see the eyrie, but his reply was that the eagles must not be disturbed and their beauty and majesty had to be appreciated at a distance. I was disappointed but tried to content myself by looking out for the adult eagle, hoping to build a better picture of its size in an ever-receding light situation. My late father may thank himself for being able to ‘shut me up’ so quickly on that evening, as it allowed him to enjoy another hour of peaceful fishing. However little did he know that this moment was to be the beginning of a life’s passion and that his services would be called upon many times in subsequent years .
The next day’s weather carried on where the previous evening ended with clear blue skies and a warm summer breeze blowing from the sea. After breakfast my late father said we needed some fresh supplies and so we headed into the nearest town. While we were there he made two phone calls, one was to call home and touch base with mum, while the other was work related. As such I had to leave the red coloured phone box to allow the work stuff to be discussed.
Upon his exit from the phone box he said that we had to return home; something to do with plant pre-commissioning challenges. I was extremely disappointed and expressed this in my usual way by being silent.
On the way back from the shops, we stopped at the edge of the town and I was told to wait in the car. My late father then made his way to a small cottage. I was now bored, fed up as well as being disappointed as we now had to return home. After perhaps five minutes my late father re-appeared from the cottage and signalled to me. I exited the vehicle and probably dragged my feet while walking up the garden path to further express my “I am not happy” mood. At the front door I was introduced to a gentleman called Johnny who initiated conversation with myself.
“So you saw one of our eagles?”. My eyes lit up, this man was now talking my language.
“Yes I did. I saw the adult male last night when we were fishing. He seemed enormous and watched us all the time”
“Well he would, as he and his mate are rearing a young female eaglet at the moment”.
Trying to show off, I said something about the bird’s wing span and the outer feathers fingering the sky.
“One for detail I see, but how long do you think those feathers are?”
I wanted to say something sensible, but did not want to look silly and so shrugged my shoulders and replied, “Don’t really know”.
At that Johnny produced some eagle primary feathers from behind his back. “Well they are this big”.
He handed the feathers to me to hold and I was lost for words. These were so much larger and sturdier than I ever imagined and I examined them closely. Being so focussed I missed out on the conversation that occurred thereafter.
After a minute or so I was then asked to hand back the feathers and to say thank-you, though I did not know what for, but did so and bid the gentlemen goodbye. After all Johnny had let me hold real eagle feathers.
Upon exiting the town, my late father turned the car to head up the hill road we travelled the night previous. I turned and looked at him. I saw him smile as he said “We cannot go fishing as I must return home. But Johnny says I can take you to the eyrie. However you must promise not to touch or talk at the eyrie. Simply look and observe. And we must be quick so as not to stress the parent eagles”. I nodded my head, words failing me as my mind raced to take all this in.
The walk up the mountain slope was tough going for one so young, being a lot steeper than first thought. As a result I stopped frequently to catch my breath, though kept these short as I was determined to reach the location of the eyrie. As we neared the eyrie we occasionally saw both parents flip over the ridge to check on our where-abouts, though I missed out more often than not as I was so focussed on making progress up the steep slope. When at the nest site I was amazed at the size of the eyrie, though my late father (with his engineering focus) gave me an insight into how impressive the eyrie was in terms of location, structure and sturdiness. He expanded by saying that it was one of two sites the adult eagles used on a regular basis. I seem to recall that he mentioned Johnny said the eagles had bred in this glen for fifteen years or more. But my focus was on the eyrie as I was itching to see the eaglet. The location was not exactly a walk-in situation and so my late father placed me on his shoulders and rose up. It couldn’t have been easy lifting a twelve year old boy while balancing on that steep hillside and as such the slow elevation increased the anticipation building within me. My late father again instructed me to keep my hands by my side and to simply look and observe.
When I did reach the rim level, the sight of what confronted me is one I will never forget. As there, and no more than 3 feet from me, was an almost fully fledged female eaglet. I cannot recollect if the eyas was standing or was sitting in a squat position. She was big, she was very big. Her size made greater as she held her wings in a semi-outstretched position and puffed up her body feathers in a threatening, defensive behaviour. She was darkly coloured with a partially down head and there were wisps of down everywhere on the eyrie platform. And there was a scent, an indescribable scent (though now known as hawk-chalk). I wanted to stay longer. I wanted to touch the eagle. I wanted to take the eaglet home. Hearing all this my late father gently lowered me and led me away.
As we made our way back down the hillside, I talked almost non-stop, constantly looking over my shoulder to gradually see the eyrie fade into the distance and blend back into the landscape. The eaglet’s beauty had captivated me and I wanted one! Though what reason I did not know. And to be honest I am unsure whether this was linked to a city boy wanting something no other kid had. But there was a wanting; a wanting to know more and that drove me to reading every bird of prey oriented ornithological book I could lay my hands on thereafter. And that ultimately led me to falconry literature by Ap Evans, Blaine, Burkett, De Bastyai, Glazier, Illingworth, Michell, et al… And the rest is history as they say.
Since that time I have continued to appreciate the attraction of angling (after all it was fishing that led me to falconry, a field sport, a past time and a passion I still pursue to this day), though I still struggle to understand the attraction of golf. That said I have somewhat come to acknowledge golf courses as offering useful wildlife habitats. As such I’ll use the local course as a change of running location (when the course is water-logged or snow covered), stretching my setters from one side of the fairway to the other to hunt out rough areas in search of pheasant and partridge.
And as for wanting an eagle; that desire left me after I started reading the falconry literature and viewing the enclosed photographs of Goshawks and Peregrines.
Author & Copyright:- Brian Morris
About the Author
Brian Morris has been an active falconer for over 40 years, with the last 25+ years entirely spent game hawking lowland and upland game birds with peregrines. Game hawking relies on pointing dogs and though he ran (and trialled with some success) HPR's (German Wirehaired Pointers) for 13 years, the year 2000 saw him transition to using and field trialling Irish Red Setters. Game hawking over his irish setters on upland terrain is one of his addictions!