Monday, April 30, 2012

Galway, Part 1: Two Birds

[Note: I'm writing this post in June; we were in Galway at the end of April. We thought and talked so much about our time out there that I thought I had written a post. Nope, turns out there's just pictures. We're posting it with an April date just to keep things chronological.]

We'd figured long ago that we would get out to Galway and the rest of the central west coast during our Irish year. Then my class scheduled a launch of our writing anthology (the e-book version, at least) at the CĂșirt literary festival in Galway, and we thought we might as well extend the visit to see more of the area. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

Actually, there were two birds, and there were lots of stones. I'm proud to say that the one did not slay the other.

We arrived Wednesday afternoon and got checked in to our B&B. (I swear the location of the room was meant for a broom closet, which they expanded before putting in windows and a bathroom!) Jenny, who after ten months around Dublin still doesn't know which way the ground is, took immediately to the layout of Galway as if she had ancestral instincts or some such knack. I, on the other hand, felt like Winnie the Pooh going in circles and always returning to the sand pit. So suffice it to say that Jenny was the official navigator.

Jenny had booked our next day's excitement ahead of time, in a magical place called The Burren, so we went about figuring out our transport. The promises buses weren't running in the month of April (don't ask), so we ended up renting a car.

Now, neither of us had ever driven a right-hand-drive automobile on the wrong side of the road. Suffice it to say that Jenny continued her excellent navigating, I only Mario-Karted off the curb once, and we were both assured by our possession of an Invincibility Star. (Read: full-coverage insurance. The Avis guy said, "You could bring back the car in a different shape altogether, if you wanted to. [Beat.] Please don't.")

The Burren was as amazing as promised. No -- more so. We arrived in plenty of time to the Burren Bird of Prey Centre, where the kindliest of men, a guy named Jim, took us falconing. (!!!!!!) While our Harris hawks were being brought out, we got to walk around and visit the other birds (see pictures), including a cat-like raven and a barn owl who flirted incessantly with us. Then Jim introduced us to Al and Sinead, two siblings just over a year old, and incredibly beautiful birds.

I can pretty well guarantee that I can't now do the experience justice. For me, the most thrilling part of the falconry lesson was the interaction with these two birds. Harris hawks are wonderfully social, which is why they're good for one-timers and novices; they don't require the same building of trust that other hawks and falcons do. Even so, one bad move and the trust is forever broken. We donned our thick leather gloves on our left hands, and the hawks perched there, eyeing us up and getting familiar with us. (They're not as heavy as I expected. About two pounds each.)

Then Jim led us into the light forest surrounding the Centre, and he taught us how best to let the birds loose, how to call them back (answer: with raw meat), and how much to feed them (it's a balance between keeping them interested in coming back, and not feeding them so much that they can't/won't fly); what sort of conditions were suitable (it was a windy day, so we stayed in the tree cover lest the birds get blown away from us) and how they navigate (surprisingly close to the ground, using the trees -- and us -- for cover); how to ensure a safe landing for both bird and person (arm straight out to the side) and what to do when both birds go for the same piece of meat (try to retract the arm so neither gets it; otherwise, you'll get a hawk-fight on your arm -- which we sure did).

Jenny and I were both shocked at how the birds swooped over the forest floor, and how they landed on our arms -- always swooping upward, never landing downward. We both had expected the pouncing bird of prey image that you'll see in drawings and bad tattoos. Yet we've been watching birds ever since, and almost all of them will try to land by flying up. Pretty cool! We also never expected hawks to be ground-hunters; apparently, bugs constitute a fair bit of their diet, and these birds (particularly Sinead) would tear at the turf with their talons, pulling up clumps of dirt and smashing them apart by stomping on them.

Al was the smaller of the two birds, which is typical with males, and therefore lower down in the pecking order. Yet he would constantly pick on Sinead, try to steal her food and land on her perch and torment her when he didn't get his way. A couple times, his sister had to re-establish her dominance. One of these times ended up with a wrestling match on the ground. When the birds were still, sitting back on their tailfeathers with their wings spread out around them, they almost looked like two figures lounging in facing armchairs. Then they would resume fighting -- primarily by planting their talons squarely on the other's chest and kicking. Jim let them duke it out for a while, then when Sinead appeared to have asserted herself, he stepped in and separated them. They were like two dogs in the same pack fighting, though -- neither was injured. They knew just how hard to peck and kick without actually inflicting damage!

Al might have been a pesky little brat. Sinead was an equally pesky, slightly larger brat. She would get her mind set on some object -- usually a piece of branch, or a small log -- and refuse to let it go. Watching Jim try to coax one piece of wood in particular from her was hysterical. He would get it from her grasp, and quicker than quick she would have it back again! He finally distracted her with food while simultaneously taking and hiding the stick... and even then, I wasn't convinced she wouldn't show up with it again later!

I could talk about these birds for hours. Believe it or not, there were many other parts of the trip, too. I'll get to those in another post very soon. (Do go look at the pictures here, if you want the visuals!)

UPDATE: Part 2 is here for your reading pleasure.

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