A very special someone had a birthday coming up but what to do? He’s the sort of person who doesn’t hanker after material possessions – well not much. That’s not to say he has everything, it simply means he receives more pleasure from giving presents than from receiving them and, so, is not fussed about birthdays. I wanted to gift him something he could and would remember, for a long time. An out of the ordinary present that we could both share here on beautiful Exmoor – and it was with a little research that I came upon the North Devon Hawk Walks (www.northdevonhawkwalks.co.uk). According to the write-up, a hawk walk is where you are actively involved in flying two Harris Hawks – namely Cassius and Lady Macbeth, on the moor and is very hands on.
Knowing that I’d hit the mark, I booked an hour with Nigel, the falconer, who was extremely helpful. I didn’t really know how the time was going to pan out but I knew that it would be a perfect gift.
Last Saturday on a gloriously sunny, but breezy, afternoon we met Nigel at Withypool Tea Room and there began our adventure. Travelling up and over the moor passing Knighton Combe, we arrived at Landacre Bridge, which crosses the River Barle. It’s a firm favourite with us both for picnics and also for photographing the characterful dipper and hovering kestrels.
Parked up alongside Nigel’s vehicle, we alighted and waited with bated breath for our first sighting of the hawks. But, firstly, we were handed a very thick and substantial glove to put on which immediately showed us that the walk was beginning there and then. It was all very exciting and almost impossible to hold onto the emotions that were running through both of us. Cassius was first to appear and would be the first to fly. I cannot explain the feelings of sheer joy at seeing a hawk held so close to us. Nigel began to settle Cassius on his hand whilst imparting his immense knowledge about this stunning breed of bird. It became abundantly clear that he is passionate about what he does and knows his birds inside out. We were instructed on how to hold our hands, what to do and what not to do and then without further ado, Cassius was perched on my glove, on my hand, in my space… and it was absolutely amazing! I was certainly not in control of my emotions and felt myself becoming quite choked up and it wasn’t even my birthday!
Nigel began walking down the valley toward the river and it has to be said that the backdrop of scenery here is spectacular. A perfect place to fly these wonderful birds of prey – undulating grassland, moorland all around us, woodland in the distance and the River Barle tripping along below us.
For over an hour we flew the two magnificent hawks. Firstly Cassius, slightly smaller, slightly younger and a little more clumsy than the second hawk we’d fly, namely Lady Macbeth – a hawk with the presence of aristocracy hovering around her. It felt like the birds were ours, using our gloved hands as perches, flying to and from us, jumping up from the ground, when they came in too fast and missing their mark, and then finding us once again. We held pieces of meat in our gloved fists and watched as they tried to find it, jumping up and down on our clenched hands as if trying to release the tasty morsels.
Nigel explained everything as we walked around and it encompassed the aerodynamics of the hawks, their background, nature and hunting ability. We flew the hawks understanding about them always striving to be high up and realising how powerful they are when they hunt. Cassius flew down to my protected hand from a height and came at me like a bullet – wings tucked in like a jet and, boof!.. he’d landed safely but so gently. No wonder they’re the hunters we know them to be with a technique such as he’d demonstrated. Cassius flew over us, skimming the tops of our heads so carefully, he flew at us and showed off the workings under his wing feathers and then, job done, he hitched a ride up the hill with us – riding along on a gloved hand, to be replaced by Lady Macbeth.
The difference between the two hawks was immediately noticeable with this special Lady being heavier, gentler and grander than her counterpart. Lady Macbeth, bearings noted, took off. She flew high, soaring in the huge open sky above Exmoor and we watched in awe as she flew over the river, over the woodland and, at the sound of a call and whistle, returned to land on a gloved hand. She was definitely more powerful, when she flew towards you but so very gentle when she landed. She came in with an attitude that said ‘don’t mess with me’ but her landing was as soft and light as a feather and very exact. What a stunning bird!
Being a part of their daily routine was breathtaking. To have the privilege of being so close to the hawks was second to none but to be able to have them fly to and from you is something I cannot describe very easily. The birds are swift, they’re up in the blue of the sky, flying with grace and the next, they’re down, on your hand, right there, next to you and you are looking into their eyes, shiny as beautifully polished beads. Claws that could do untold damage are inches away from you, yet there is no fear, just pure beauty. No words can explain the feelings of utter exhilaration at their comings and goings, bells jangling in the breeze as they move around, letting you know they’re safe – letting you know they’re close.
Together we stood on the moor, a place we both love so much, and witnessed the two Harris Hawks, doing what they do so well. I knew simply by looking at the face of my companion that he was in his element. It was a picture to witness his joy, which continued with a smile painted on his face well into the next day and the day after that. What I’d wished for was a gift that would leave him with memories and that’s exactly what I’d achieved, with Nigel’s expert assistance, knowledge and, of course, his wonderful birds!
Saying our goodbyes to Nigel, we stayed at Landacre Bridge for a lunchtime picnic watching a small group of red deer up on the grassy moorland above us. The river played its own tune as it tumbled on past us towards Withypool and beyond. A wagtail dipped in and out of the stones at the river’s edge and the sun shone. The breeze was less sharp here than up on the moor, allowing us to dine alfresco whilst we chatted about our unique experience of flying the hawks and then, gradually, coming back down to earth, just the like the hawks had done a short while ago. However, what we did giggle at together, was the fact that no matter where we walked or whether we had a hawk on our hand or not, our arms were permanently out at a right angle…very funny to watch!
I cannot express enough what a fantastic time we had – it is something for all ages, so very different from the run of the mill activity, so good to share with each other and excellent value for money. Nigel is a perfect host, the idea is so clever and is executed extremely well. If you want to put a smile on someone’s face for a birthday, anniversary, wedding present or anything else and keep your memories forever, then give this a go – you won’t be disappointed, I can assure you. It’s an experience not to be missed!
It was amazing, simply amazing!