DICKINSON CENTER - Trudging through snow in the young hardwood forest, falconer Mark Manske and his apprentice Cody Maine kept their eyes peeled for signs of rabbits.
"What you do is beat the brush," said Manske, carrying a long stick in his hand that he used to knock on some downed tree branches piled a few feet high.
Manske and Maine were trying to flush some prey for Frieda, an 8-year-old captive female Harris hawk that is more commonly found in the southwestern part of the U.S. The bird is one of four that he owns. He has another Harris hawk and two owls, though they are not all for hunting.
Falconer Mark Manske calls Frieda, his Harris hawk, during a mid-January hunt for rabbits.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Manske, who is a licensed falconer, has been studying birds for most of his adult life. He has been banding raptors for 27 years and is a biology teacher at St. Lawrence Central in Brasher Falls and an adjunct professor at Paul Smith's College. He also regularly gives educational presentations on raptors.
Manske became interested in raptors while studying under renowned biologists Frederick and Francis Hamerstrom in Wisconsin. Manske said Francis Hamerstrom was the first person to fly a golden eagle in North America. Like the Hamerstroms, Manske's interest in raptors goes far beyond falconry, but on this particular day that was what we were focused on.
Falconry is the sport of hunting small game with trained raptors: falcons, hawks, eagles and owls. Some records indicate its history dates back 4,000 years to ancient China. Today, falconry is a rare activity that requires patience and time commitment from an individual. It is highly regulated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Game Service, and the captive birds must be properly housed, trained and fed.
Manske himself was in the process of moving up to the level of master falconer from the general falconer level. He just needed some paperwork to be processed for that to happen. A master falconer must have at least five years completed as a general falconer and be recommended for advancement by three master falconers. There are also several requirements, including passing a written test, just to become an apprentice falconer.
As we walked through the woods near Manske's house on this cold mid-January day, the Harris hawk flew nearby, landing on low-hanging branches and dead logs. She was trained and knew not to stray far from Manske because she was conditioned to understand who provided the food.
When flying, the bird never seemed to stray very far and could always be found. Bells attached to her legs jingled with each movement.
When perched, the bird would watch intently as Manske and Maine rattled their sticks against branches. Her eyes seemed to follow the men, who were trying to flush some rabbits.
"There's a lot to it," explained Manske. "You have to find the prey. You have to have the bird in positions and the bird has to see it."
If all that happens, the bird will have a chance for some prey, which can also include squirrels, turkeys and geese. Who eats the prey depends on the catch, Manske said.
Manske trained the hawk to prey on rabbits by showing it a lure with rabbit fur on it. The lure had food on it. Eventually, the bird associated the lure with food. From there, the birds hunting instincts are expected to take over.
But having a successful hunt is not necessarily easy. Manske said he had been out with the bird several times in recent weeks. The hawk had come close to getting a rabbit, but hadn't been able to finish the job.
"The other day, she missed the rabbit by half a foot," Manske said excitably. "It was awesome."
In the area where Manske and the hawk were leading the hunt, there was an abundance of tracks. They were plentiful near the brush piles and an old stone wall between the edge of the forest and a field.
At one point as I stood back from the group, I heard Maine yell out. He had seen a rabbit flash across the snow. I was far enough away that I couldn't see the action, but I noticed the Harris hawk flying low in Maine's vicinity. The hawk had apparently seen the prey. The rabbit, though, found safety in the confines of the stone wall before the bird could get to it.
After the excitement, Manske and Maine spent a few minutes knocking their sticks against the stone wall, hoping to spook the critter into the open again. If that happened, Frieda, who was perched 5 feet off the ground just a few feet away, would have another chance to strike the animal.
But there was no such luck. The rabbit continued to hide, so we moved on.
Shortly after, Manske pulled out a dead mouse from a pouch around his waist. He then fed it to Frieda, an obedient raptor who had flown to his gloved hand. He wanted to keep the bird's energy level from diminishing.
After leaving the wall, we headed toward Manske's house, which was just a quarter-mile away. Manske and Maine kept their eyes open for tracks and investigated a few spots they thought a rabbit might be stowing away.
No more were to be found, though. Instead, back in Manske's front yard, he fed Frieda some more mice.
"The nostalgic look at falconry is 'Oh, you have this bird hunting for you,'" Manske said. "They don't realize you do 95 percent of the work."
Contact Mike Lynch at 891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.