A call sounds out, and the Goshawk draws himself up to attention – he knows what it means. That is the crow of a cock pheasant, a noise that signals autumn, the countryside and, in our case, the hunt. His eyes, always scathing with orange fire, sharpen further. We follow the sound and as we do he tenses, waiting.
Our quarry comes into view ahead of us, heads down and oblivious to our arrival. I take a few hurried steps, but the Goshawk is impatient. To wait any longer might give our position away, as my footfalls are far noisier than the hush of a predator’s wingbeats. Pushing off my glove, he explodes into action. He arrows towards the birds and they don’t even look up as he glides towards them, wings held still, trying for ultimate stealth. He’s a grey ghost, a phantom; he’s death itself in winged form.
At the last moment, the pheasants see him. They flush noisily and head for the nearest cover. The Goshawk sees this and takes a new tactic. He’s an old bird, canny with experience. Instead of pursuing in a straight line, he suddenly arcs high above them. Turning, he dives, stoops like a falcon, into the cover where they have just put in. His impact makes the foliage shudder and I’m already running, anticipating a kill.
But before I can take more than five steps, there are birds leaping into the air again. First the red-brown cock birds and dull-tan hens, then the steel grey of the Goshawk. He hadn’t managed to connect, or hold, in the cover, and my heart sinks. He’s too far behind, and both of us know he won’t catch up. He glides down into the field, defeated. I bring out the lure, and whistle.
Within moments he’s returning to me. I take a moment to simply watch his approach, to find myself the object of his burning gaze. It’s unsettling in a way that makes my heart leap and my lips curve in a smile. I swing the lure up to meet his outstretched talons and he takes this, at least, to ground in a tight grip.
I can feel his frustration, I can read it in his stance, his repeated footing of the lure, so I make in slowly for the trade off. After a moment of tension, the Goshawk is sat on my glove again and I know that will be the last flight of the morning, as our stolen hour of dawn before I have to work comes to an end. His meal today will not be the hot fresh meat he craves, but he tears into what I offer without hesitation.
Sometimes the hunter loses the hunt, this is the austringer’s lament, but there will be other quarry. Flights like the one I witnessed, however, are beautiful and unique. I have never felt more alive, more aware of my surroundings and also a part of that very landscape than when I pursue wild quarry with a trained predator. This is what the Goshawk was born to do, and I’m just a privileged spectator he deigns to allow to assist him.