It’s a beautiful April morning — a good day for flying.
Flying falcons, that is.
My husband and I and our 8-year-old grandsons, David and Jordan, have a reservation at Sky Falconry in Alpine to learn about raptors and how to fly a trained bird of prey like falconers have been doing for more than 10,000 years.
Once off Interstate 8 and some surface roads, we bump along on the nearly 2-mile-long dirt road that takes us near the top of Mount Viejas, once a sacred spot to the Kumeyaay Indians. From here, we can see Alpine, El Cajon Mountain, the Cuyamaca Mountains and Mount San Jacinto. On a really clear day, Catalina Island is visible.
In our immediate surroundings, the boys like the climbing boulders, I like the occasional wildflowers, and the birds love the lots-of-sky.
Our hosts and teachers are Denise Disharoon and Kirk Sellinger, who two years ago opened Sky Falconry, the only falconry school in Southern California. The two met at Torrey Pines Gliderport where Sellinger was flying Shanti, his female Harris’s hawk.
“I was attracted to his passion,” says Disharoon, who came to California five years ago to pursue her interest in raptors. “Falconry brought us together.”
For Sellinger, it was a video of paragliders flying with falcons that ignited his imagination several years ago. Since then, he’s traveled the world working with raptors, including a stint as a National Geographic videographer.
When class starts, they introduce us to Ananda, a red-tailed hawk, and Hayduke, a Harris’s hawk. Disharoon and Sellinger take turns explaining the differences and that Ananda is in training, so it’s up to Hayduke to take on this class of novices.
We each get a heavy leather glove, learn how to hold our hands and arms, then take turns calling Hayduke, who swoops in to gently land on our human perches. David is smitten with the whole process; Jordan is a little less sure, but grins widely when Hayduke alights on his arm.
Each participant gets several turns, and then we put Hayduke through other exercises. Observers take lots of photos as Hayduke elicits big smiles from everyone.
A few falcon facts, according to Sellinger:
• “Falconry” is a noun; “hawking” is the verb.
• Raptors live from 20 to 30 years in captivity and their main predator is the great-horned owl.
• In the wild, raptors usually fly only 20 minutes a day. During nesting and mating season, it increases to up to four hours a day. The rest of the time, they are perched to conserve the energy needed to hunt and guard their territory.
• Raptor eyesight is eight times sharper than human eyesight. They can see ultraviolet light and thermal columns, and their vision is so stimulating that, to calm the birds, owners may put a tiny hood over their heads.
• Raptors doze with half their brain; the other half keeps tabs on their territory and watches for prey.
Developing a good relationship with a raptor is paramount for falconers, Sellinger explains.
“Since they can take off anytime they feel like it, keeping them around comes down to building and maintaining a good, cooperative relationship.”
Raptors have other problems beside the great-horned owl.
“Electrocution is the number one killer of raptors in the U.S.,” Sellinger says, “and every wind turbine kills about 20 birds a year.”
The total annual death toll from wind turbines is about 87,000 raptors; a half-million birds of all kinds; and more than one million bats.
Sky Falconry moves from Alpine to Torrey Pines Gliderport in May and remains until September. For more info, call (619) 722-0092, or visit skyfalconry.com.
Next column: While you’re in East County, visit Mission Trails Regional Park.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.