For the Birds: Hawk Walks in Vermont
This week, we’re looking at great birding sites around the world. Today Frank DiCesare shares a spot for falconry in Vermont.
For many travelers, fall in northern New England is about the foliage that follows the first frost. In one Vermont village, however, vacationers can enjoy the season’s crisp outdoors with a learning experience as majestic as its autumn-tinged acreage: lessons in the ancient sport of falconry.
Nestled along Hildene Meadows in southwestern Vermont, the British School of Falconry offers introductory falconry lessons to guests at the Equinox Resort and Spa in Manchester Village. Each forty-five minute lesson teaches guests how to handle, cast, and recall Harris hawks, a bird of prey species known for tolerating human contact.
Guests or “handlers” wear a calfskin glove on their left hand to protect them against the hawk’s talons when it is perched on their fist. Handlers then learn to cast the hawk by stepping forward on their right foot as they swing their gloved arm gently forward. After it is released, the hawk glides in the air to a T-perch some thirty yards away. There the hawk rests until its handler recalls it by raising and extending the gloved hand.
Once schooled, handlers are then driven to one of the resort’s trails to test their newly-honed skills in a one-hour trek through the Vermont wilderness. Known as a “Hawk Walk,” handlers cast hawks into the trees and recall them as they walk through the forest, an exercise falconers call “following on.”
On rare occasions, however, a hawk may fly from its handler voluntarily in search of dinner. “Sometimes the birds are perfectly happy to find a nearby perch because they consider it a hunting opportunity,” says Rob Waite, manager of the British School of Falconry. “So one of the things we may see during a walk is a hawk chasing prey. We try to discourage it, but if it happens, it’s just nature being nature.”
This month, the school expanded their Hawk Walk excursions, adding seven new trails along the 900-acre Equinox Preservation Trust. The school uses four of its thirteen trails regularly, which run between a half mile and one mile in length. “The trails allow us to lengthen or shorten the program, depending on how physically fit our guests are,” Waite says. “Some people walk quicker than others. Most of the trails are around the central region, but each walk is different.”
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Hawk Walks are given from April through October. For more information on the British School of Falconry visit their website.
Frank DiCesare is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer. His feature stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, Rhode Island Monthly, Northeastern University Magazine, and The Patriot Ledger. He lives in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Photos courtesy of the British Falconry School.