Several inches of snow had fallen all night and into the morning so by noon, when the blizzard suddenly stopped, all the land was covered with a thick blanket of new snow. Gareth Morgan and I knew that it would be a perfect afternoon for hawking even though the temperature was staying at a chilly –12 degrees. Once we reached my favourite hunting field, about a forty-minute drive away, we set out all bundled up and ready for action. My European Goshawk “Clementine” was fairly keen to get going but since I had hardly managed to fly her over the Christmas holidays I knew I would have to fly her mostly from the fist rather than let her fly to her own chosen vantage points in trees. All was going well; she stayed attentively on the fist and bated only a little. We couldn’t find a single rabbit track as we trudged through the snow. We soon realized that all the rabbits have hunkered down under woodpiles and in their holes during the blizzard and they had no intention of surfacing just yet. Gareth stomped on a few woodpiles until we were lucky to hit the right one. A rabbit scooted out the end with the Gos in hot pursuit. She tacked sharply and tried to grab it but it got into deep cover before she could nail it; a great shifty flight though. Then the Gos pumped vertically to a nearby power pole and assumed her new lookout position from the very top of it. I was nervous of having her there; having already had one hawk electrocuted a few years back so we coaxed her to follow us afield. We jumped on woodpiles and were beating the bush for her when suddenly she made a beeline away from us. She was pumping. She had done this to me before when I wasn't flying her every day so I knew we had to hoof it to catch up to her. Easier said than done! En route we grabbed the telemetry receiver and jumped into my Jeep. She had flown about one mile away and by the time we tromped through fields and vineyards of knee-high snow we located her peacefully roosting at the very top of a huge tree.
For an hour I tried to call her down. I cleared a landing path on the snow so that each time I threw the lure on the ground it didn’t sink into the snow and disappear. I tried calling her to the fist. It always amazes me how a bird who has spent hours on your fist suddenly decides there’s no way it’s landing on your fist now, no matter what premium food you’re offering it. I’m in the habit of carrying a couple of quail in my pocket. Usually as soon as the hawk sees a hint of a wing beat she whips to the fist but not today. Both quail were dead as doornails, frozen stiff. By now I was starting to get the shakes a bit. Gareth was quietly stationed a little distance away watching all of this. We had both run so far and worked up a sweat so now when we were standing still and the sun was setting, the cold was really starting to affect us. After trying for over an hour I gradually came to the grim realization that the hawk was going to roost in the tree overnight. What a sinking feeling that was. I decided as a last ditch effort to see if we could find a local farmer who kept rabbits, pigeons or game birds. As my luck would have it there was a man who raised pigeons just down the road but he wasn’t home. Nightfall set in. The temperature quickly plummeted and for the first timer in my life I left a bird out overnight in the middle of winter. My worst dread was that I knew there was no way the batteries in her transmitter would make it in this cold so the telemetry would be useless. On the way home we went to a local pheasant breeder and I bought a cock pheasant so I would have the ammunition I needed to tempt her back the next morning.
I left the house at five in the morning. The snow squeaked underfoot as it does only when the temperatures are dangerously low and I could feel the hairs in my nostrils freeze. On the car radio I soon learned that it was minus twenty and with the wind chill, minus thirty. During that forty-minute drive I thought about what I would do. I was fairly sure that she would be either in the very same tree we left her in or roosting in a tree nearby. She was nicely tucked in a forest at the base of the Niagara escarpment between Hamilton and Niagara Falls, an escarpment that Hamiltonians proudly call “the mountain”. I also was confident that I would locate her easily by listening for the tinkling bell, which I had attached to her tail. It would sound very loud in the cold, silent morning. Since goshawks are in the habit of regularly twitching their long, barred tails, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d hear the familiar jingle of her tail bell.
I arrived well in advance of daylight and had plenty of time to prepare my gear. I wanted to have the pheasant tied to the creance and ready to go as soon as I located the hawk. I didn’t want to have to waste time fiddling with waxed thread and cord in the freezing cold. I made double and triple sure that the pheasant was well tied. I’ve had it happen when birds squirm in the food bag and knots can come undone. I knew my food bag was ready to go. I always load it in the same way with food on one side and supplies such as a spare set of jesses, a small spool of waxed thread, a spare swivel, and a chocolate bar on the other side. And in my hunting coat I had a spare set of gloves, my knife, and my car keys that I keep in a zippered pocket. It’s not so much that I take pride in having such an organized system of having every item in its place as much as I’ve figured out the hard way all the things one might need. Finally I checked to be sure I had some money as well. Just as I was about to lock the door I thought I’d flick on the telemetry receiver just for no go reason. To my shock and amazement I heard the wonderful beep…beep…. beep…. signal being transmitted from the transmitter attached with to a leather bewit to my hawk’s leg. I pointed the receiver antenna in the direction of the tree where I had left Clementine last night, just about half a mile away. The signal was very strong so I was convinced that the Gos had roosted exactly where I thought. I left the receiver in the vehicle since I really thought it would not be necessary to take it along.
In those odd minutes of the early morning when the night retreats and the first hints of light appear, I made my way across the fields and vineyards, feeling the freezing cold snap at my face. But I was really quite confident that once she saw the pheasant, Clementine would come whipping down. I reached the bottom of the escarpment as daylight broke and carefully scanned the trees for my bird. It’s hard to explain but once you fly a bird a lot you get almost an uncanny ability to scan a territory and spot it readily. Of course all the trees are bare so it shouldn’t be too difficult to spot her. On my first couple scans of the forest edge I couldn’t see her. I decided to gently whistle for her. Those who know me know that I can’t really whistle so in the others seasons I call the birds with a proper whistle but in the winter the metal or plastic sticks to your lips making it impossible to use a whistle. So instead I emit a rather pathetic whistle that usually works nonetheless. No response. Maybe she’s still roosting just down the forest a ways and didn’t hear my whistle. Okay, time to pull out the big surprise. I carefully uncoiled my creance and tossed the pheasant onto the snow. No bell. No hawk. Nothing. Shit, she’s not here! So I ran back to the Jeep to grab the receiver. Again the signal was in the direction of the forest so I headed out on foot again, this time with the receiver beeping a strong signal due east. I ran back as fast as I could realizing that since she was starting to be on the move I would have to try to catch up to her soon. The signal was strong and even though I adjusted the “Gain” knob on the receiver so that I could better assess how far away she was, I was convinced she was no more than a quarter of a mile ahead of me. Eagerly I continued to tromp through the snow as fast as I could. But the going was tough. I had to cross abandoned vineyards with rows of wires that needed negotiating, either by lifting my legs over them or by ducking under them. I climbed fences; no mean feat with winter boots and all my winter clothing and gear. Optimistically I advanced and each time I took a reading with the receiver it indicated that the bird was due east. So I headed through the snow, somehow comforted by the regular beeping signal emitted by me hawk’s transmitter. It was a miracle that the two tiny batteries lodged in the transmitter were still working in this cold and I feared that the signal would die at a nay moment. It was the only thing connecting Clementine and me. I was walking through fields where I had never been before, looking at farmhouses in the distance with their occasional light shining in the window. I mused at how the occupants were all snug and cozy in their beds as I was trekking through drifting snow, often following fresh coyote tracks which expertly wended their way through the fields and around obstacles. Still no sign of my bird but I pursued the course eastward. Surely she was in one of those trees just up there where the forest edge juts out a bit. I turned down the gain know and the signal was till strong. Yup, she must be just ahead.
Eagerly I continued for two hours in this way, following the signal and thinking that she must be just ahead a little ways but gradually I was feeling the drape of despair fall on me. There was no sign of the bird. I was getting close to civilization with houses and roads and noise, and lots of interference and static interrupting the beeping signal. For minutes on end I would continue eastward without hearing the beep and as I came out of the woods and reached a major road I realized that I couldn’t catch up to her on foot. Surely the signal would die any minute now. I had to get back to my Jeep so that I could drive ahead to the signal and triangulate to her location. I looked at my watch. Nine in the morning. People should be up by now. I’ve got to get back to my Jeep. So I looked at the houses and on the edge of the forest I saw a really attractive log home with Christmas decorations. Hopefully these people are friendly. I rang the doorbell. No answer. Oh shoot, now I’ve awakened them. Oh well, better ring it again. A sleepy husband and wife came to the door. “Excuse me” I said. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me.” “That’s right!” he retorted. “But I’ve lost my hawk in this area. I’ve been on foot trying to catch up to her. Is there any way you could please drive me back to my vehicle in Winona?” They both looked at me. What a sight I must have been. This weird woman standing at their door wearing a leather bag with a pheasant tail sticking out of it and holding an electronic contraption in the other hand…and before they’ve even had time to have a coffee! “Give me five minutes and I’ll give you a lift.” And who says Canadians aren’t friendly? He was going to give me a ride! Once I got into my Jeep and put the heater on full blast I started to realize how cold I have been getting and my body shuddered from the shock of the warm air.
It was time to drive east and try to pick up that signal. I studied the odometer to learn that I had walked three and a half miles cross country. I drove to different places along the main road that runs along the bottom edge of the escarpment occasionally picking up a faint beep among all the interference .As I zoomed in on the signal I realized that the hawk was in the middle of the forest part way up the escarpment. I had no option but to climb. I parked at a gas station and set out through an elderly woman’s yard. She came to the door and gave me permission and cautioned me not to fall. Yea, yea I thought. She’s worried that I’m going to fall. If she only knew what I had already gone through this morning, not to mention evading four angry and protective Labradors at one point. No sweat, lady. I started to climb, often following coyote and raccoon tracks. These coyotes sure know how to pick the best route up. Then the footing started to get pretty steep. A couple feet of snow blanketed everything from view. The cliff face was covered with dead and living trees and rocks, some boulders and some loose rocks. I grabbed onto branches and saplings to hoist myself upward but sometimes the fallen branches were not secure and I started to slip a bit. I really had to dig into the snow as I placed each foot and made sure that I had a solid foothold. Then it happened…I grabbed onto a branch with my one hand, holding the valuable receiver in the other…and the branch broke. I slid down the mountain face a good twenty feet finally managing to brace myself against a fallen birch. I just stayed there for a while and started to realize just how dangerous this really was. Carole, this is just how people get killed. Here you are climbing this mountain just to get a stupid bird back and you could get killed. Just think, no one knows you’re up here except that little old lady. You could hit your head on a rock, fall unconscious and die of exposure. I scanned left and right. There was no easy way up. I had made it seven eighths of the way up and I would have to turn back. That’s it. I give up. I’ve lost the bird. I can hardly get a signal anymore. I tried my hardest. Time to head out. So I slid on my butt much of the way down. My legs were getting really wobbly now and I was feeling the pain of a pulled muscle on my upper left leg. Either I got it on the fall or from all the high stepping through the deep snow. Forget it. I’m never going to try serious mountain climbing. I really don’t like the sensation of having uncertain footing. And I thought of friends of mine who are avid mountain climbers. It’s amazing all of the weird and sundry thoughts that start to go through your mind. That’s it. I’m packing it in. I made it back down. Back to the car. Turn on the heater.
Okay, well maybe I’ll drive up the escarpment road once and just see if I get a signal.
There I was at the top of the mountain looking down on Lake Ontario and the Niagara area. It really is very beautiful. Then amid all the static I could hear the weak signal due east again. I drove along the road half a mile from the mountain r brow and running parallel to it. The signal indicated that she was somewhere along the edge of the brow. If I wanted to try to find her I would have to walk in half a mile and then along in an easterly direction for about one mile. I just couldn’t quit. I set out through a field and toward a pine forest. Immediately I lapsed again into that time/space warp in which nothing else really exists except using all your senses and powers to zero in on your bird. Up ahead I can hear a mob of mad crows. They must be pestering a hawk. Maybe it’s the gos. I tried to hurry my steps a bit but the footing was treacherous. Wide chasms covered in snow cracked back from the edge of the brow. They were invisible to the unsuspecting voyageur so I prodded the snow with a stick before I took each step. Again I followed animal tracks. This time, fresh deer tracks. And there they were a young pair of Whitetails, just twenty feet in front of me. I must have disturbed them from their resting place; a cozy circle of melted snow made while curled in the snow for the night. They loped off to the right, silently. Gone.
I kept taking soundings with the receiver. Weak beeps….occasionally….toward the east. I walked along. Should I head back now? No. Might as well go on just a bit more. Once the signal is dead you’ll never have a chance of finding her. I wasn’t even really looking at my surroundings, just stepping my way east. How far, how long, it didn’t matter now. Then it happened. I kept the receiver turned on all the time fearing that if I turned it off I might be draining the batteries more by turning it on and off and somehow the sound of the beep… beep…. was a comforting companion, my only reason that I was here at this moment in this incredibly beautiful and strange winter forest alone. This must be some kind of test. But why do I need to be tested? I’ve tries so hard to work well and carefully with the birds. I’m always trying to learn more about them. Why? I was awakened from my musings and mental discourse by the static and hum of the receiver. This was it .The beeping signal emitted by the hawk’s transmitter was gone. Only static remained. Dead end. My journey was over.
So I stood there in the silent forest, turned off the receiver and just stood still. I didn’t feel much of anything. Better be practical here Carole. Take a break and then head back. You’ve got as long way back. I’ll rest here a bit. Better eat a little chocolate. No, I don’t want to unless I have some warm coffee to wash it down. Who knows how much time elapsed. I sat on a snow-covered log overlooking the brow. Well I really learned a lot from that bird. At least I know she can survive on her own.
Then…ding ding ding…there it was!! The unmistakable sound of my Gos’s tail bell! What a great bell it is, so carefully attached with waxed thread and glue to the two centre tail feathers….ringing, ringing. She’s here! Not too far into the woods. Got to be careful not to startle her. She’ll be wired, spooked from being out overnight. Okay Carole, now don’t move too fast. Listen for that bell again. Just ahead a bit further. I’m scanning the trees looking for that needle in the haystack. She’ll be three quarters of the way up a tree. There she is! Sure enough. I know she spots me way before I see her. There’s that instantaneous moment of eye contact. Her mind is racing…stay or take off? She stays. She’s safe way up there. She knows it. Okay, now I’ll just uncoil my creance. Do this with my bare hands. Want to feel everything. Never trust gloves. Throw the pheasant just over there. Just lob it so she has an easy drop down. Not too steep so she can pick up speed and overshoot it. There…I lob the pheasant on the snow. It’s dead as a doornail. Must have been when I fell down the escarpment. Oh no, she really needs to have flapping wings or movement to entice her. But she really loves pheasant. She hasn’t eaten for two days. She won’t be able to resist. She bobs her head a couple times and drops toward the pheasant. I love that moment. Oh shoot. She just raked it and flew furiously quite far over to the left. Way high in a tree. All these trees are huge and the lowest branches are twenty-five feet up. Okay I’ll just slowly walk toward her tree. Don’t make eye contact. I’ll just lob the pheasant onto the snow again. She swoops down, rakes it and takes off again. This is okay, She’s done this before. Just be calm. Take you r time. She’ll come down again soon.
Well for over an hour I tried every trick in the book and nothing worked. I dragged the pheasant on the snow. I tied the pheasant’s line to a tree and walked away. I tried calling her to the fist. No way. The cold was really starting to set in. It had been all right while I was on the move but now I was starting to find my body uncontrollably shuddering and my fingers were freezing. I was getting dangerously cold and I knew it. Gotta get moving. There’s a farmhouse in the distance about half a mile away. Maybe they’ve got chickens or rabbits I could use to call her down. Gotta get her something live. She knows the difference. So I set out across the field facing straight into the wind. The drifts were really high so it was slow going and then I stopped. Carole you can’t walk away from the forest. The telemetry is dead. You have no way of locating her again except for the bell and she’ll be on the move all day so she’ll probably keep heading east. You’ve got to go back into that forest and stay with your bird. You’ll have to depend on the pheasant and quail. That’s all you’ve got.
I tried again and again for what seemed like a million times to coax the bird. I was standing there feeling just awful when I saw two people walking in the woods toward me. As they approached I shouted, “Is this your forest I’m trespassing in? I’m so sorry but I’ve lost my hawk. She’s over there a ways.” The Gos flew off as they approached me. It hardly mattered anymore. The older couple were gracious and explained that they walked a loop in the woods every day. “There! Can you hear the bell?” I asked. We stood together for a few minutes. The woman urged me to come home with them and said something about hypothermia. Ironically neither one of them heard her bell or saw her. They left and I thought That’s it. I’m out of here. I give up. I went back to the spot where I had carefully placed the receiver. Okay one more try and I’ve got to head back. I’m freezing. I gathered my stuff and although twice I had walked away from her and she had flown back toward me, as if to taunt me, she still would not come down to me. I decided one more time to put the pheasant on the snow in clear view well in front of her. I tied the creance line to a tree and walked well away and hid behind a tree peeping from between the two forks of the tree so I could watch her. She bobbed her head a couple of times, then bobbed her head again. She couldn’t resist. All is safe. Clementine flew in a straight and deliberate drop to the pheasant, plucked at it a couple of times, then stopped dead and turned her head directly behind her back and blazed her eyeballs right at the forked tree where I stood. She knows I’m here. If I budge she’ll leave the pheasant and I’ve lost her for good. She just kept glaring at me with those wild orange eyes. She wouldn’t eat the bird so finally I slowly came out from behind the tree. She stayed statue-still staring at me so I started to walk toward her in a wide circle. Dozens of times she had eaten game on the ground and allowed me to come right up to her. So I approached slowly and surely and as I got to about ten feet from her, she started to dig her talons repeatedly into the pheasant. I leaned down and reached for her jess. I had her.
I collapsed beside her and let her eat. I sat on the snow. I could hardly look at her. My fingers were so numb, especially on my left hand, which is the hand I hold her on. I was worried I could lose my grip on her. In all of her travels the Gos had lost one jess. I looked at the remaining jess and started to walk with her on the fist. I decided it would be my luck that the jess could snap in the freezing cold one time when she bated from the fist so I grabbed her, tucked in her wings, and carried her under my left arm. In my frozen right hand I carried the receiver which finally I braced under my right arm because my fingers couldn’t work anymore. I walked out past the edge of the forest and through thigh-high snow for about one mile, thinking about nothing and just listening to my deep breathing and the occasional complaining squeak coming from the Gos.
When I reached the road I met two electrical repairmen who just stared at me. I calmly explained, “I’ve been in the bush since seven this morning looking for my bird and I just got her back. Could you please reach into this bag, into that small pouch? That’s the hood. Just open it up, slip it over her beak, and pull these two long braces at the back. There, it’s on. Thanks.” And they just watched me walk away. “How far is it to Wolverton Road?” I asked, as I kept walking westward. “Oh ‘bout one mile. You’ll see it.” So there I was limping along this country road with my hooded bird under my arm and I came to the next farmhouse. Two men were talking at the road and the one immediately walked over and asked if I needed some help. And so he gave me a lift to my Jeep, asking me a million questions that I gladly answered as the heater blasted warm air on us.
On the way home I stopped at the log home and thanked the man for doing his good deed for the day. On the drive home I thought about buying or making a nylon knapsack so you could sling the telemetry into it when you need to use your hands for crossing rivers, climbing mountains and fences, or you could sling it over one’s shoulder to free up the right hand once you have the bird on the glove. My coffee sitting in the cup from the morning was a frozen block. As I headed into our lane way, saw the smoke spiral from our chimney and watched the friendly lights twinkle through the windows of our cabin, I said out loud, I have never been so glad to come home.
“And what about Clementine?” you might ask. Will I ever fly her loose again? She flew away from me on Wednesday. I spent the day retrieving her on Thursday. I licked my wounds and limped around on Friday and Saturday. I thought I had spent every ounce of courage and physical strength trying to get her back and as I came out of the forest with her I thought that I would never fly her again. Well, the weather forecast for the next couple of days is sunny and cold and there’s a lot of snow cover. Ideal conditions for rabbit hunting. The Gos looked at me today as if nothing had ever happened. What do you think I’ll do?