Flying a Cast of Longwings

Steve Jones

Dayton, WY

 

Photography by

Dave Perfetti

Tiercel hybrid standing guard while the female prairie dines.

As I pulled off the blacktop, my thoughts drifted ahead. Not to the coming flight, but to the article I had promised to write. It's common to start with a description of a flight, usually an exceptional one. I continued down the gravel road as I contemplated which flight to describe. There had been so many great flights this year it was hard to choose one. It was then that I decided to write about the flight that was about to take place. It was risky; it could be a bad day, but it would be reality. The only out would be if we failed to locate game, that would be a bit boring.

"Too bad Dave isn't here with his camera." I said to my self. "It would have been nice to get some photos." Other than the dog and birds, I was alone. Dave was off to Rio again. He calls it work, but I know the truth. The plane runs on auto pilot most of the way, and he gets paid to lounge on the beach with his flight attendant fiance on the layover. What a rough life. I, however, would rather be right here doing what I am doing, hawking grouse.

I shifted into four-wheel drive as I pulled off the gravel road and into the field. It probably wasn't necessary as the ground was quite frozen and there was only snow in patches. The mercury had gone up to 35 degrees, and the sun was shining through a light layer of clouds. It was quite pleasant for northern Wyoming in January. After crossing a small prairie dog town, I stopped to put transmitters on the birds and check the wind direction. It was out of the west as usual, and the two track road I was on headed northeast. I decided not to put the dog out yet and continued down the road.

There is a spot about a half mile into the field where I had seen birds before; I decided to start there. I always enjoyed hunting this area because it holds sage grouse. Locally we have plenty of sharp tailed grouse, but sage grouse are not very common. There isn't enough sage brush around here to support them; however, south of here they are abundant. This field has plenty of sage; obviously the reason they are here.

I stopped just ahead of the spot and glassed it before getting out, just in case there were some exposed birds. There were none. I grabbed my bag and receiver then dropped the tail gate on my sixteen-year old Ford Bronco. I then released my red setter, "Socks." While she was doing her bathroom duties, I picked up the first half of the team, a first year tiercel peregrine X gyr hybrid. He is a lot of fun to fly and is quite the athlete. Dan Konkel, who produced him, guessed he would end up flying at 32 ounces (907 grams). He weighed in at 31 ounces (879 grams) today; his usual flying weight so far. He will probably fly at 32 ounces (907 grams) next year. Dan sure knows his birds. Dan also said he would be a good one, and he was right.

Here Jones is getting ready to launch the team.

I then had the other half of the team, a female prairie falcon also in her first year, step up on my arm next to the hybrid. She too has turned out to be a dynamite bird, flying at 28 ounces (794 grams) she is also a bit larger than usual. Mother nature produced her and did a fine job of it. When I climbed into the eyrie to get her, she was approximately 27 days old and had been well fed.

Socks was told to "find the birds." We headed east to circle around a patch of heavy sage and come into it from down wind. As soon as we started into it, Socks got birdy. We carefully worked into the wind for several hundred yards, and found no birds. We got to a ridge that overlooks a small creek and the surrounding bottom land. Down there is another patch of heavy sage that frequently holds birds.

It was 4:30 and getting late, so I decided to fly it on speck. I removed their jesses and hoods and faced them into the wind. The hybrid roused, and the prairie bobbed her head looking up wind. Without bothering to rouse or mute, she launched from the fist. The hybrid quickly followed. They had gone over a hundred yards and still had not headed upward, quite strange. Hugging the ground and pumping hard, they had to be after something! Three hundred yards out they hit a grouse on the ground. It was hard to see what was going on, but I thought I saw two grouse flying off unpursued. Had they ground killed one? For several minutes nothing happened. I then spotted the hybrid starting to mount, and a big sage grouse got up under him. The prairie left the ground right after it, and all three disappeared to the northwest. After waiting several minutes, I pulled out the receiver, a piece of equipment that has been well used this year. I picked up signals from both birds in the direction they had gone. The signals were getting stronger; they were on their way back.

Shortly after I got the receiver folded up and returned to its scabbard, I spotted the hybrid. He was only about two hundred feet up and intently watching the ground as he came over. I then spotted the prairie; she was a bit wide to my left and about eight hundred feet up. It was strange that they were not together; they usually stick together. There was a small draw between me and where the grouse had come from. I decided to carefully work my way through it while I waited for the hybrid to get some height. With Socks at heel, I made my way to the other side, trying to keep an eye on my birds while I did.

Another succesfull flight, this time a hen pheasant.

I paused to check their position just before coming out of the draw. The prairie was over one thousand feet up, but a bit wider to my left. The hybrid was not mounting very well. He usually follows the prairie up, but they had become separated. He was maybe four hundred feet tops. Socks and I moved in hoping for a point. When we came out of the draw, there was a grouse right in front of us, just standing there. It promptly flushed and headed to my right at an incredible speed. Winter sage grouse are amazing birds. The hybrid came in behind it fast, but I couldn't see whether he made contact in the failing light. I could see that it had kept going none the less. They quickly disappeared over a rise, and I diverted my attention to the prairie. She was streaking across the sky in an attempt to get over them. She was making good time and only losing a fraction of her height. After covering close to a quarter mile, she went vertical and then also disappeared below the rise. About then, grouse started getting up everywhere. Socks and I tried to leave the area without bumping any more birds, but they were "gettin' while the gettin' was good". Again the receiver came out. It appeared my birds were about where the prairie's stoop would have ended, down near the creek. After loading Socks in the truck, I quickly drove down there.

I found them in some brush eating the grouse. The hybrid was on its head and the prairie was on its back near the tail. The prairie was plucking feathers, but wasn't getting much meat from its bony back. I tossed out a weighted lure garnished with a meaty wing from the pheasant they had caught the day before. She instantly jumped on it and began feeding. I then moved around to the hybrid. He eagerly stepped to my fist and began feeding on a pheasant leg, from the same left over pheasant. The bones had been crushed or removed so he would eat it quickly, which he did. He was then hooded and moved closer to my elbow. After shoving the grouse into my bag, I moved back to the prairie. I removed the other pheasant leg from my bag and offered it to her. She hopped up quickly with the lure still clenched in her left foot. Because of its weight it hung down below my glove, and she quickly dropped it. She mantled a bit as she fed next to the hybrid, but made no attempt to carry or turn around on the glove. Her mantling diminished as she finished her meal. Every scrap of meat was consumed; she even gently removed a tiny piece from the hybrid's foot. Prairies don't like to waste anything. I then hooded her, and she promptly cleaned her beak on his shoulder.

After putting the birds back in the truck, I took out the grouse. It was an average size hen. I felt her chest; it was quite round. It would be good eating. I could just taste it; the breast meat sliced thin and fried in olive oil to medium rare with sauteed mushrooms over it.

The hybrid has already been fed and waits hooded while the prairie is picked up and fed the remainder of her meal.

These two birds have fed me many times this year. They are quite an effective team. I have flown them every day, weather permitting, since the start of the season, and they have never crabbed, not even once. They happily share kills and consciously work as a team. I have wanted to fly a cast for several years now, and this year I was finally able to put one together. I talked to everyone I could find who had attempted to fly a cast of longwings; there weren't many. Most of them told me I was nuts. They said that the birds would fly off in two separate directions and I would most likely loose at least one of them in short order. They also said that two birds started together would develop sibling rivalry and be at each other's throat. I also remember reading somewhere that while a cast is more effective for pursuit flights, it's not for waiting on flights. They were all wrong, except maybe, the part about me being crazy.

These two birds have been together constantly ever since the hybrid was fully feathered. They have become inseparable; they actually like each other and feel more secure in each others' presence. The hybrid has even protected the prairie on numerous occasions. One day back in September while I was flying them, a wild prairie started harassing my prairie. The hybrid heard my prairie scream and streaked across the sky and chased the wild bird into the next county. Judging by the intensity of his attack it appeared he was pissed off.

They have developed a tactic that is very effective on upland game. The hybrid stoops instantly, and if he kills outright, the prairie joins him on the kill and the flight is over. With tough quarry like grouse, easy kills are rare, and the hybrid usually doesn't kill in the first stoop. After his stoop, he gets right on its tail and presses it hard. He inherited his speed from his mother, a big fast gyr. While he tails it, the prairie follows the flight at pitch. When she decides the time is right, she stoops and usually hammers the grouse into the dirt. This tactic is also effective when the quarry bales out. The hybrid follows it in and either catches it or flushes it out for the prairie. When they are both tailing something and it bales, the prairie is usually the one who catches it; she is quite good at catching quarry in cover.

Flying these birds in a cast has given me many opportunities to compare their physical abilities. At first, on early training flights at homing pigeons, the hybrid was considerably faster. The prairie on the other hand with her lighter wing loading could mount in the warm air much better. Early on he struggled to keep up with her vertically, and she struggled to keep up with him horizontally.

After an unsuccessful flight instead of just flopping the lure on the ground, I stooped them to the lure twenty or thirty times each. This muscled them up, and their pitch improved drastically. Their speed also improved, especially the prairie's. I have continued this throughout the season. They now mount to a thousand feet or more every day and are quite fast. The hybrid is faster than a mallard in level flight, and the prairie is only slightly slower. In my opinion, stooping birds to the lure can affect their pitch; it makes them go higher!

One time they stooped side by side. They were only five feet apart and coming down in formation. Their position relative to each other didn't change through the entire stoop. It appears that their speed in the stoop is the same. At least, it was in that stoop.

The hybrid is more persistent on long tail chases. This was no surprise. The prairie frequently gives up after a mile or so and comes back. I wish both would. Unfortunately, he is teaching her to be more persistent. Over half of their kills have been between a quarter and a half mile away. Most of these are not really tail chases though; the prairie frequently waits this long before stooping. Luckily, grouse have always out flown them when a tail chase has gone over a mile. Ducks always seem to find some water and escape after an extended tail chase, and huns never go that far before bailing into cover. They have, however, caught homers quite a distance away. In previous years, if I was unable to find a slip and it was getting late, I would do a pigeon session. I can't do that with these birds anymore. They just won't give up. Fortunately game numbers are up, and I usually manage to get a slip on wild quarry.

The hybrid eats a little more than the prairie, but he is 3 ounces heavier. The surprising thing is he always casts first, usually at least an hour sooner. Also, the prairie's food requirements are more greatly affected by the amount of exercise they get. The hybrid's food requirements don't vary much, despite the temperature or how much exercise he gets. She can handle the heat much better than he can, but I was surprised to find out that he can handle the cold a little better than her. This may also be a product of his larger size.

One thing that is surprisingly similar are their looks. They can be quite difficult to tell apart in flight. Next year when they are in adult plumage, it should be easier. However, their outlines are not quite the same, and their flight styles are different. At a distance, if I go with my first impression, I am usually right. In the end, it rarely matters because they stick together and both preform well.

 

Right - Andy Garlic also flies a successful cast. These tiercel peregrines had no problem catching several huns this day at the Downs, south of London. Andy flies birds year round, half the year in England and the other half in South Africa. His birds use strategy when chasing game and work well together. Their style is very similar to the author's cast. One falcon stoops first and gets right on the quarry's tail. While the quarry is preoccupied with the falcon behind it, the other falcon stoops and blind sides the quarry nine times out of ten

One unexpected bonus of flying a cast is protection from predators. Frequently on kills, especially in exposed areas, the hybrid leaves the kill and stands guard. I first noticed this in October when Dave and I were in southern Wyoming hawking sage grouse. When I arrived at a kill, the hybrid was sitting on top of a sage bush scanning the horizon. My first thought was that they had not caught it, and he was looking for it. When I got closer, I saw the prairie on the grouse right below him. He now does this quite frequently. Later that month, they caught a pheasant and a bunch of crows started mobbing them. I rushed out to them as quickly as I could to help. When I got there, the prairie was alone on the kill, and the crows were gone. I then spotted the hybrid chasing the crows away. He returned and landed two feet from the kill and just stood there looking around. He won't leave the kill if they are in cover or if it is something small, like a hun. The first hun they caught they had a tug of war over. I think he knew she could eat almost the whole thing if left with it, and she would. They rarely do that anymore; they simply feed side by side. It is quite a sight to see them both on a little hun eating peacefully. However, unless I get there quickly there isn't much left for my supper.

On the down side, I have had to break out the telemetry receiver far more often this year than ever before. As I have already stated, they commonly kill some distance away. That usually isn't a problem. I know the direction the flight went, and if they don't return, it's a good bet that they have killed. The problem comes in when they chase game that I didn't flush. They consistently mount very high, over a thousand feet, sometimes completely out of sight. This allows them to command an enormous area, and anything they see is pursued. The hybrid started this; he has always been eager to take on very long slips. Often when this happens, I don't see then stoop; they are simply there one second and gone the next. Then the telemetry comes out, and the cursing begins. So far they have not stayed out over night; I have always been lucky enough to find them before they completely crop up. On two occasions after eating half a crop each, they came and found me. It's helpful to have them come to me when I am looking for them, but it would be nice to find the kill. On those two occasions, I don't know for sure what they killed. The first time this happened, I think it was a duck. They had a lot of blood on them, nothing bleeds like a duck, and they were grossly over weight the next day.

Handling them is not much different from flying just one bird. It's only really different at the conclusion of a flight. When they kill, I simply pick up the hybrid, replace his jesses, and hook up the glove leash while he feeds on the fist. I then hood him and perch him on my left knee as I squat down or move him toward my elbow. I then pick up the prairie and feed her the remainder of her meal on the fist. Replacing her jesses and hooking her to the second glove leash as she does. She is then hooded, and we go home.

The author making in on a sage grouse kill in southern Wyoming.

If they don't kill, I stoop them to a light weight ungarnished lure. When one of them catches it, I quickly toss out my second lure. It has no string and is weighted with BB's to prevent carrying. It also has a fresh duck or grouse wing with the shoulder blade and surrounding meat securely attached to it. Sometimes both birds jump on the second lure, but it doesn't matter. I offer the hybrid the fist, and he promptly hops up. The prairie feeds on the ground while he eats on the fist, just like when they kill. I started picking up the hybrid first for several reasons. First, he eats quicker than she does. She likes to spend five minutes making sure there is nothing else to eat before being hooded. Also early on, if I hooded her right after she ate, she would shake her head as if trying to cast. She simply was not used to the hood yet and would sometimes shake so hard, her meal would come back up. If I gave her five or ten minutes before hooding her, she wouldn't do this. Since she took so much longer, it worked better to do him first. They quickly got into the routine, and he started looking for the fist first. She was content to feed on the lure or kill until I turned around and bent down. This became her cue that it was time to hop to the fist. A couple of times during the season she has left the garnished lure looking for the fist before he was done eating. In these cases, I moved the lure with my foot, and she jumped back to it long enough for him to finish. If I leave a fair amount of meat attached to the wing, it keeps her occupied longer, avoiding this problem. She usually consumes about an ounce of meat on the lure.

Flying a cast is a little more difficult than flying just one bird, but not near as difficult as I had imagined. This is the first time I have flown a cast but I've had so much fun I may never go back to flying just one bird again. I really wish more people would fly birds in a cast, and not just Harris' hawks. From what I have experienced this season, it's not near as difficult as most people think, but then again, maybe I just got lucky.

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