Virginia Falconers Gather In Greenwood

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Duane Zobrist with Hera, his two-year-old Golden Eagle.

The Virginia Falconry Association held its annual meeting at the Greenwood Community Center August 18. The meeting was organized by Crozet falconer Kevin Markey, who has been a falconer since 1989.

Eagles, hawks, falcons and kestrels sat, calm and vigilant, on perches as their owners caught up with each other over a pulled pork barbeque picnic spread catered by Southern Way Café. The Association holds two winter meetings during the hunting season, October to March, when the birds are released to hunt, but the summer meeting is for business and socializing. Members came from Bristol, Virginia Beach, Fairfax and Maryland. Given the geography of the club’s members, Crozet is a good location for a rendezvous.

VFA president Eva King of Keswick, an immunologist in her day job, has been a “hard core” falconer for 13 years. She and her husband “fly” a Gyr falcon, an Arctic species, and a Red Tail hawk.

“There are 100 licensed falconers in Virginia,” she said. “Falconry is the most regulated thing you can do in the U.S. You have to pass an exam, have your housing facility inspected and do a two-year apprenticeship under a licensed falconer.”

Falconers spend at least a half hour a day with their bird and sometimes as much as four or five hours a day. King said her average is an hour a day.

During the hunting season, when leaves have fallen from the trees and falconers and their birds can keep eye contact, raptors usually seek rabbits, squirrels, and other rodents. Falcons and kestrels will hunt flying prey. Falconers run some risk that their birds will get lost once released.

Patrick Moreland with Buzz.

The meeting also included an art show, mainly portraits of hawks and falcons. Handmade leather hoods to cover the birds’ eyes were also available. There were T-shirts depicting hawks in flight, license plate frames with slogans like “Longwingers: Nature’s Mile High Club” and “Hawkers. Don’t Try This at Home” on them. There were also arm guards, bags, knives, perches and carrying cases for sale. Items were auctioned to cover club expenses.

“The equipment of falconry hasn’t changed for hundreds of years,” said Markey. “That’s part of what drew me.”

Now in its 30th year, the association announced the graduation of five apprentices and welcomed four new apprentices to training.

Carolyn Iwicki of Springfield, now a college student studying fisheries, came to ogle the birds. She called herself a “pre-apprentice.”

“I’ve always had an interest in birds of prey and how ecosystems are kept in balance,” she explained. “They don’t feel emotion. They are hard-core predators. They are wired to hunt. They think in a way different from our own.”

Duane Zobrist of Crozet brought his two-year-old female Golden Eagle, which he has named Hera. Once she’s five years old he intends to breed her to his male Golden Eagle, who is named Zeus. Hera was born to a Czech breeder and Zobrist said it cost him nearly $18,000 to acquire the bird. He has a second male, too.

“Falconers thought they were going to lose their sport to DDT,” said Zobrist. “Falconers learned how to breed artificially. Captive breeding has saved falconry.”

Eagles hunt turkeys and geese as well as other raptor prey. Few falconers hunt with eagles and that elite group has the admiration of regular falconers.

A former Boy Scout leader, the past president of the BSA’s Stonewall Jackson Council, Zobrist takes the eagles to Eagle Scout Honor Council ceremonies, where they make quite an impression. He will also have one at the camporee slated for Oct. 13 at Montpelier because scouts have expressed an interest in falconry. Zobrist said he first became interested at age 11 when a falconer brought a kestrel to his scout troop’s meeting.

A male American Kestrel owned by Patrick Moreland of Harwood, Maryland, and which he tended fondly, was judged the best bird at the show.

“I got him as a nestling on the Eastern Shore,” explained Moreland, whose father is also a falconer with 42 years of experience. “I’ve been flying birds all my life, Red Tails and Harris Hawks. I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys who fly eagles. I could never do it.”

His kestrel, named Buzz, weighs a mere four ounces. Kestrel numbers are down because of predation on them by Coopers Hawks, he said.

“They eat insects and sparrows,” he said. “I’m training him to catch starlings. He’s a cool guy and a joy to have.” Buzz watches a lot of TV while the family is gone from the house, Moreland said. “He’s got to have company.”