On a perch some 45 feet away from where I stand, Thunder awaits my call. "Hey, Thunder." At that, the Harris's hawk swoops in to land on my gloved hand. He's not there to socialize. The tasty bits of raw mouse and quail squeezed between my thumb and forefinger are the enticement for the visit.
And falconry was the enticement for MY visit to Hershey for The Falconry Experience by The Hotel Hershey. I traveled to Pennsylvania solo, with the idea of trying some aspect of the ancient "sport of kings."
Once Thunder's standing on my hand, I'm able to watch up close as his sharp beak dips down and he grabs his treat. I feel the tug of his talons, digging in for stability as he eats. Soon he's done. He takes a few steps and turns, eyeballing that perch in the distance. And off he flies.
One other guest was with me in the field. We took turns calling Thunder in for a landing. It was a gorgeous sunny day and a little surreal to be that close to a majestic raptor. So similar to those I often see circling high in the sky, looking for prey.
Bob Leonard, the falconer that day, taught the two of us the proper way to await a personal hawk landing. You stand sideways, arm straight out and ensconced in heavy leather. You don't want a bird with a sharp beak flying into your face by accident. Or landing on bare skin.
In the two hours of falconry, we got to touch Thunder's chest and wing feathers while he perched on Bob's hand. And visit with several other hawks and a peregrine falcon housed inside chicken wire on the green field.
We also watched a simulated hunt. A playground-sized square of wire near the ground called a "lure machine" is rigged with a fake squirrel made of leather. With a piece of meat tied to it. Bob starts up the motor to send the "squirrel" skittering around in the grass. Thunder tears off after his potential snack.
When Bob stops the gizmo, Thunder stands over his "prey" on the grass, lifting his wings and guarding it. Essentially telling everyone else, "Back off, it's mine." It's called, "manteling." Don't worry Thunder. I've seen your beak and talons. I'm staying back!
The fancy hat you see Thunder modeling in the photo at left is hand made by Bob. Excited hawks calm down when their eyes are covered. Plus, um, they look stylish.
Trying Falconry is not cheap, but it's not outrageous either. At $80 at Hershey, it's the price of a couple of nice dinners. But likely to be way more memorable.
Photos: Thunder and me. Bob Leonard and Thunder. Thunder, calm and stylish in a hand-stitched leather hat.