Zorro...Of The Skies Africa's Black Sparrowhawk

Craig Golden

Adult female Black Sparrowhawk "Raker"

These birds are the perfect mix of a Sharpie, Cooper's and Goshawk. They sport the build of a Sharpie, size of a Goshawk, and, unfortunately, the temperament of a Cooper's.

Upon entering the field, we spotted some Swainson's francolin crossing the dirt track we were driving on and watched them disappear into the tall grass. Andrew grabbed his bird, telemetry (you'll never keep a Black Sparrowhawk long without it), and let Purdy, his well trained German shorthair pointer, go to work. The dog picked up the scent immediately and was locked on point within a hundred yards.

As Kimo, Andrew, and I approached the dog, the hood was slipped off. Raker, poised as still as Carl Lewis before the gun sounds, her feathers tight with every muscle in her body coiled and ready to spring into action with total concentration and anticipation of the eminent flush to come.

Andrew moved in with his fist held high attempting to flush the game, when suddenly behind Andrew came an explosion out of the grass, as the francolin took off like a rocket.

Both falconer and hawk were facing the wrong direction, giving the francolin an advantage, preventing it from being taken on the rise. It looked hopeless to me as the hawk took after the quarry because within the first hundred yards, there was considerable distance between them. At this instant is when I learned the real capabilities of a Black Sparrowhawk. I watched in awe as she put on the afterburners and flew right up the francolin's exhaust, forcing it to the ground before it could reach cover, taking the quarry with a hard twist as it tried to escape in the grass. This flight went 400 yards at full speed. I stood there speechless (for those of you who don't know me, that's quite a feat!); unfortunately, lowering the camera to watch the flight. This was falconry at its very best. We were in the African grassveld with Acacia trees (classic African flat tops) peppering the horizon as the sky turned a crimson red, which African sunsets are so famous for, where man, dog, and hawk are in perfect sync. An image forever burned into my mind. And this was only our second day of hawking.

Our first day in the field with Andrew Barnes and Raker, his twice intermewed passage female Black Sparrowhawk didn't go nearly as smooth. Raker took one look at us and our Nikons, figuring we were the devil, and flew for the horizon.

Kimo and I had flown to Zimbabwe, Africa to see these feathered demons fly so after the first day Andrew elected to drop her weight (something he hates to do, always preferring to fly his birds high for health, strength, and stamina). We also spent the afternoon manning the bird in Andrew's front yard with the camera equipment, which really paid big dividends.

The third day of hawking went somewhat worse than the first, the bird forgetting that it had ever seen humans before, certainly due to the successful hunt and the just reward from the previous day. But the time was not wasted because of that ever present breath taking African sunset.

Andrew's favorite quarry for Black Sparrowhawks are francolin and helmeted guineafowl. Francolin look like a small grouse about the size of a ruffed grouse, and these birds can really fly, with quarter mile flights being the norm on the first flush. Guineas are the size of a chicken, black and white with a red and blue head. They look like they would be easy to catch, certainly easier said than done. They are extremely wily and also strong flyers. An adult guinea weighs several times more than a female Black Sparrowhawk, making them a most difficult quarry. This hawk was so fit that I never saw her give up a chase, 300 and 400 yard flights were the short ones. Often times, it appeared the bird was flying out of the county. One evening, when we couldn't locate the francolin, Raker became frustrated and flew over a mile to catch a grass owl. Even though it was grassveld, it took telemetry to locate the hawk in the tall grass. She is truly one of the fittest birds I've ever seen flown.

Lady luck has always been one of my companions, and upon entering the field on the fourth day, we spied a flock of guineafowl feeding in a recently harvested field of soybeans (Andrew hadn't seen guineas in this field this season). By the time we put it together, the birds had moved out of the beans and into the adjacent field of tall grass. (Wild guineas don't compare with the obtuse guineafowl you commonly see in captivity. They don't look the same and certainly don't behave the same, exhibiting all the wiles gamebirds are known to partake.)

Andrew let Raker go as the last bird in the flock slipped into that sea of grass some three hundred yards out. They had taken cover by the time the hawk arrived so she took a perch in an Acacia tree near the guineas.

Andrew circled around the guineas attempting to intercept them. These birds, like our pheasant, have the ability to disappear into thin air. He headed them off, called the bird to his fist, and proceeded toward Kimo and myself in an attempt to pinch the birds between the three of us. As we drew closer, a bird flushed a hundred feet out in front of Andrew, taking a hard right at a speed you would never think these goofy looking birds capable, with Raker in hot pursuit. She closed the gap in three hundred yards, forcing the guinea into the ten foot tall wall of thatch grass alongside the highway. Andrew went to retrieve his charge, but elected not to reflush the pinned guinea so close to the road and by the time he returned with the hawk, the rest of the guineas had melted into the landscape.

We headed back to the bakkie (African for truck) to a location where we were likely to find a few francolin. We only had a few minutes of light left (the African sun sets and rises very quickly) as the sun started to disappear on the horizon, lighting the sky with the most beautiful fuschia and yellows, we stepped into the tall grass with one very keyed up hawk.

After walking only a couple hundred yards, the dog locked on point. Andrew moved in flushing the francolin, Raker jettisoned herself off the fist flying the quarry down within several hundred yards; another classic Black Sparrowhawk flight.

With another week left for us to hunt, I knew it was only going to get better. Andrew had lined up a falconry safari camping trip with his good friends, Adrian Langley and Andre Groenwald.

Adrian Langley has permission to fly out of Kent Estates, a 30,000 acre farm loaded with game. He told us where to meet him, easier said than done. In this endless sea of grass and Acacia trees, he's not easily found, but after a couple of hours, Andrew smelled him out.

When we followed Adrian back to his camp, I was amazed at the diversity of bird life. Hornbills, grey lories, doves, and finches by the thousands and, of course, numerous coveys of francolin.

As our truck approached camp, I see Adrian has chosen well, with both francolin and guineas all around, so we settle into Adrian's camp, which is just inside the tree line next to some plowed fields. Kimo inquired about the snakes: cobras, mambas, etc., and Adrian's reply is "Yeah, they're here, try not to step on one." Andrew reassures Kimo that it's winter here (doesn't feel like it due to the temperature of 75°F) with very few snakes out, attempting to put Kimo at ease, as he finished setting up the tent for her.

This is the first time Andrew and Adrian have ever taken a woman on a hawking safari so they were more than a little concerned about how this pretty little yank was going to handle the African bush. I had assured them that Kimo had spent plenty of time in the outdoors both hunting and fishing, and she wouldn't pose a problem (these men couldn't possibly be any worse than I am), that this woman was tough. And prove it to them she did, as the next few days were packed with hawking from sun up until midnight with Kimo never missing a beat.

The next morning we woke up with the light, tired from a late night of bunny bashing with Andre Groenwald's Crowned eagle, Lundi, made some hot tea while staring into the campfire anticipating the hunt to come. Andrew suggested we go with Adrian to see his first year imprint musket Black Spar fly, telling us how much faster he is than Raker. This I've got to see so off with Adrian we go.

We jump into the bakkie heading into the grassveld and after fifteen minutes and a few cattle gates, we spot some Swainson's francolin running through the grass. This is it!

Adrian puts the telemetry on the bird, calls his pointer, and we go in the direction of the fleeing birds. During the drive, he had mentioned that he wasn't happy with this hawk as it seldom behaves (the bird is an imprint), and true to his word, the hawk flies away into an Acacia tree several hundred yards in the wrong direction. Undaunted, he tells Kimo and I to follow his dog, Georgie, as she knows what to do. So we let the dog lead the way while Adrian fetches his bird.

When we catch up to Georgie, we find her frozen like a granite statue holding point over the unsuspecting francolin. Time stood still as we waited a few anxious moments for Adrian and his little Spar. Adrian and his charge arrive and move into position for the flush. The scene erupted into a flurry of wingbeats as the francolin catapults himself from the grass hitting full speed instantly. The francolin reaches a patch of tall grass and small Acacia trees before the hawk can close the gap. Of course, the dog has no trouble locating the francolin (these falconers had the best trained dogs I've ever seen). Adrian, with the hawk back on his fist, moved in for the flush; the francolin even more reluctant to fly after his close call. This time the francolin flushes 50 feet away with Adrian's musket taking off like he was shot from a cannon, closing the gap and pulling the cock francolin out of the air in 200 yards, in a smoken burner flight ending up with one of falconry's greatest prizes: an adult male gamebird in full plumage (in this case a Swainson's francolin) under a mantling hawk. And Adrian says he's not happy with his bird?! Anyone I know would give their eyetooth for a hawk that can fly like this. Just goes to show you the level of falconry these men expect because this hawk performed this quality of flight every time out, and it's still not enough.

When we arrived at the scene (after climbing over an electrified game fence), the little guy had the situation under control, eating like its his last meal as most imprints seem to do.

Adrian commonly takes two or three francolin per hunt with this bird, but this time chooses to feed him up as he was anxious to fly his seven times intermewed female passage Peregrine falcon on the abundant and never ending supply of francolin.

The next morning I elected to hunt the guineafowl that were all around camp with Andrew and Raker while Kimo went with Adrian to again watch his Peregrine pummel another francolin out of the sky.

Andrew and I started walking right from camp in the direction of the noisy guineas. It didn't take long to locate the flock, the sound of the guineas running and chirping sent Raker on her way directly at the fleeing birds. The hawk and guineas flew back into the thick bushveld, obscuring our view of the flight. Without haste, we were right behind them, attempting to keep the guineas on the run. Raker was perched in the top of an Acacia tree anxiously awaiting us to reflush the game, so we dove into the bush causing the flock to break out helter skelter.

Raker burst from her perch in hot pursuit, disappearing into the bush right on the guineas tail. We suspected the hawk had caught one, but must have just missed as she was sitting in the bush all puffed up, giving us that demonic accipitrine stare, no doubt blaming us for her loss.

Now we had the flock broken up, and they began calling to locate one another. We took off through the grass and Acacia trees in the direction of a specific call as they were all around us. We played this cat and mouse game for another 90 minutes with many spectacular flights (and numerous close calls), often the ones where you don't catch game are some of the best.

Raker didn't grow tired of the game, we just ran out of birds to chase. Relocating game without the aid of Andrew's dog, which had come up lame several days before, was very tough in the thick cover.

We then went back out on the edge of the bushveld with the plowed fields to our left hoping to find some francolin. In only ten minutes, we spotted eight feeding about 75 yards out in the harvested field. Andrew, with the hawk on his fist, approached as close as he could get (still about 75 yards). Soon as Raker saw them, she was off full steam taking the angle across the field as the francolin were flying for their life to reach the nearest cover.

Here again we thought she connected as the flight ended with both predator and prey converging right at the treeline with her crashing into the brush. The francolin had managed to escape in the eight foot tall thatch grass (this is the grass the Africans roof their houses with). We set up to reflush when suddenly the quarry back-doored us flying for all it was worth. This flight was more true to form as Raker flew full steam for 300 or 400 yards disappearing through the trees. It wasn't easy to locate her in the tall grass, but we managed to do so, careful not to step on the hawk, finding her without the quarry which was surprising to us because at last glance she was closing the gap. This tall grass was well over head high where the flights kept ending, causing much frustration for both hawk and falconer. At this point, Raker decided she'd had enough, flying to the top of the trees, sulking as accipiters will. We had been hunting since first light and now it was about 10:00 a.m. with the temperature approaching 80°F.

All of us were done for the time being, causing us to leave these cunning and most deserving birds to be hunted another day.

It was interesting to learn that in Zimbabwe there aren't any closed seasons or limits on game. The only birds or animals you can't take are the protected species, which accounts for only 24 bird species and 8 species of mammals. Anything else is fair game. In the event your bird takes one of the protected species, you are to remove the kill as quickly as possible, then turn it over to the Chief Ornithologist for the National Parks within 14 days.

In conclusion, I must state that hunting with these men and their hawks was certainly an exhilarating experience as we observed our grand sport at its very highest level. The caliber of hawks and abundance of game, from francolin and guineas to lories and doves, with more small birds than imaginable, creating a virtual paradise for falconry, making Africa one of the world's premiere locations for the "Sport of Kings."

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