Monday, July 20, 2015

Friends in Flight: Hawks and Falcons in the Southwest

Etta comes in for a landing
On a beautiful fall afternoon, just outside of Socorro, we witness the ancient battle between hunter and prey. This hunter, weighing in at under three pounds, is a Harris hawk named Etta.

Falconer Matt Mitchell releases the bird and moments later we’re striding across the scrub desert. Etta flies ahead, soaring 20 or 30 feet above the ground before landing on a small tree. We pass by, trying to flush a rabbit from the brush. When we get ahead, Matt raises his left arm, which is protected by a thick leather glove, and the hawk flies to him.

As the late afternoon sun drops towards the horizon, a jackrabbit bolts from a bush. The hawk takes off on silent wings. Seconds later she dives behind a bush. The rabbit shrieks.

Etta the Harris hawk
Matt runs toward the action. He has almost 20 years on me, but twice-daily hunts with his birds keep him in top shape and I trail behind. The rabbit has vanished, leaving only a tuft of fur caught in the bush. One of Etta’s feathers sticks out at a sharp angle. I’m probably imagining her indignant glare. “She got beat up,” Matt says. “That rabbit put some moves on her. The jackrabbit went around these bushes in figure eights and whatnot and stalled the bird out. The bird ended up on the ground and the rabbit took off.”

Chalk one up for the prey.

Fortunately, Etta doesn’t need to catch her own dinner. As dusk falls, we return to our vehicles where Matt holds a piece of meat high in the air. Etta jumps from the ground to his hand to get the snack, building the muscles she needs for a strong takeoff.

Successful or not, the hunt is an experience to remember. Matt has been working with hawks and falcons since 1968, hunting them, breeding them, and working with injured wild birds. But he never gets bored. “You’re always learning something, and no two flights are the same,” he says. “That’s the excitement of it.”

Matt with a falcon, ready to hunt pigeons
Protecting The Hunters

Peregrine falcons were nearly extinct in the 1960s, the victims of pesticides like DDT (now banned), which caused their eggs to have thin shells. Falconers established the Peregrine Fund, bred their birds, and released over 4000 peregrines into the wild in North America. The peregrine falcon was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1999, but dangers still exist.

Every year, thousands of birds – including raptors like hawks and falcons – are killed by power line electrocution or collisions with power structures like elevation towers and wires. These deaths can be reduced by proper site selection for towers and lines, and making minor modifications to poles or lines that are especially troublesome.

New Mexico’s rural electric cooperatives take a stand to protect raptors. Ben Leyba, EVP at Northern Rio Arriba Electric Cooperative, explained how they help protect birds of prey. Ospreys like to nest on power poles there, which can electrocute the birds and cause power outages. “We will erect a pole away from the lines so they have somewhere else to nest. We see what we do as it helps the environment, it helps the ospreys, and it helps us.” They hold a festival every year in honor of “Electra,” a baby osprey that was electrocuted but survived. Because of their efforts to prevent more of those accidents, the co-op won the New Mexico Avian Protection Award in 2002, and other co-ops have won in other years.

The New Mexico Avian Protection (NMAP) Working Group involves individuals, conservation organizations, government agencies, and corporations working to prevent avian mortality caused by electrocutions and collisions with utility structures. The NMAP website offers useful resources, including guides to identifying raptors or raptor feathers.

Hawks Aloft provides educational programs and community outreach using rescued injured raptors. The public can also get involved in nest surveys.

This was excerpted from an article first published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA, July 2012

What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. It features falconry as a subplot:

When Audra stumbles on a murdered woman in the woods, more than one person isn't happy about her bringing the crime to light. She’ll have to stand up for herself in order to stand up for the murder victim. It’s a risk, and so is reaching out to the mysterious young man who works with deadly birds of prey. But with danger all around, some risks are worth taking. 

Another action-packed suspense novel by Kris Bock, perhaps her best to-date. The author weaves an intriguing tale with appealing characters. Watching Audra, the main character, evolve into an emotionally-mature and independent young woman is gratifying.” Reader Ellen R.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.

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