A Snipe Named Bob
by Eric Edwards
(Published in the August 2003 Hawk Chalk)
I sat down to catch my breath and watch my merlin feed. To Lilly, it was just another warm meal wrapped in brown feathers. To me, it was a lifetime achievement. Her prey, snatched in flight six feet above the muddy bank of a pond, was a Common Snipe: one of falconry’s most difficult quarries.
Catching this one cost the lives of two falcons, the pride of others and me nearly a decade of effort. I peered down at the bird, its long bill upturned at an angle between the feet of my falcon. I knew this Snipe well. His name was Bob.
I first met Bob in December 1994. I was flying Buckshot, a tiercel peregrine, in Waycross, Georgia. Buck was my duck hawk, trained in Navasota, Texas: a duck hawker’s paradise. But home for Christmas with my family, I found the only things floating on Waycross ponds were pine needles and fishing corks.
My search for other quarry ended in an industrial park on the outskirts of town. Half a dozen mourning doves grazed in a mowed hay field beside a mobile home factory.
I released Buck beside the truck, upwind of the doves. He rang in unusually wide circles, probably confused and searching for a pond. Eventually he flew back to watch me flush ducks from the grass – good hawks give you the benefit of the doubt. As I ran toward the doves, I heard a snickering laugh and saw a brown blur flush on my right. It was Bob. And it was a perfect slip. I looked up: Buck was already in a stoop. My six hundred gram missile quickly closed the gap on his target. Success was inevitable. Then, moments before impact, Bob effortlessly evaded Buck’s stoop. The tiercel pitched, rolled and soon regained the lost distance. Seconds before Buck plucked him from the sky, Bob executed a maneuver that would snap most modern aircraft in half: He went from horizontal to vertical, straight up two hundred feet, leveled off and disappeared.
I had never seen a Snipe fly for its life. Bob’s speed and quickness astonished me. I knew then why Snipe hawking ranks among the toughest forms of the sport. I vowed to catch one.
During the next five days Buck tried everything to make good on my vow. He tried to pound Snipe out of the air in a stoop; he tried to drop in behind them and fly them down; he tried to hit them head on. Each day started with the laugh of a Snipe and ended with Buck eating cold quail on the lure.
My next brush with Bob came flying a passage female merlin in Winter Haven, Florida. While crossing a large wet field late in the season, Bob sprang from a puddle and flew twenty feet to a patch of knee-high grass, taunting me. The merlin Mallory was sitting in a tree, three hundred yards away with Bob between us. I flashed the lure and she left her perch, skimming the ground at full speed. I ran in and flushed Bob right in front of her. POW! She knocked him down. The merlin tucked a wing and went in for the kill, only to see Bob jump up, snicker, and leave her in the mud. Season closed: No Snipe.
With plans to stay in Florida another year, I refocused my falconry – now a vendetta – on a new goal. My aim was to trap and train a passage tiercel Prairie Falcon for the specific mission of killing Bob. In October 2001 I flew to Amarillo, Texas, and returned with a freshly trapped tiercel Prairie Falcon named Lincoln.
Lincoln tamed and trained quickly and in a month was ready for his first taste of Snipe. He left the fist in mid-rouse and rode a thermal up a thousand feet, holding roughly overhead. As I ran across the field, the sound of laughter filled the air; a hundred Snipe flushed in every direction. I looked up to find Lincoln still circling, still a thousand feet high. He showed no interest.
We returned early the next morning. This time Lincoln poised himself five hundred feet up and directly overhead. When I started flushing Snipe, the tiercel stooped immediately. He missed the first bird, but as he pitched up, another Snipe flushed beneath him: It was Bob. Lincoln rolled over and folded. I heard a “whack” and saw feathers fly from Bob’s back. But Lincoln’s thirty-foot stoop lacked enough speed to do damage. I could hear Bob laughing as he flew over the distant tree line. In his laugh I heard relief.
We were close now, and my confidence skyrocketed.
Two days later, Lincoln’s mutes turned a strange and frothy pastel green. He ate well but sunk his head between his shoulders in an odd way. I took him that morning to the veterinarian for tests and a full exam. Finding no obvious ailment, the vet sent us home with a bag of antibiotics and hopes that nothing was seriously wrong. Lincoln died that night. His necropsy revealed a massive infestation of airsack worms. I buried Lincoln in Bob’s field.
That summer I decided to bring in a ringer: a tiercel Barbary Falcon. Here was a bird known for speed and agility and great promise to get the better of Bob. I named my new assassin Sniper.
In three weeks the tiercel was flying free, a phrase that barely touches on the facts. This bird flew and flew and flew. With a strike of the braces and a glimpse of light, he was off in pursuit of anything in the sky. Still a month before Snipe season, I needed a way to rein him in and chose a course of kite training to fill the time.
One week into the regimen, Sniper was hit by a passing Chevrolet pickup. He was thrown, cartwheeling, thirty feet up, to land on his back in the middle of the road. I ran down the grassy median to scoop up what I guessed was my dead falcon. Within a minute his eyes fluttered, and he began struggling to right himself in my hands. I felt him all over in search of something broken and found nothing. The next morning I was back at the vet’s office for X-rays. Neither the vet nor the films found anything wrong. Although I was cautious now about “clean bills of health” from the good doctor, I had to concur: Sniper was struck by a truck at 65mph and didn’t have so much as a scratch or a bent feather. Maybe my luck was changing.
Two days later, Sniper was back flying high. His kite training progressed rapidly, and within weeks he was ready for pigeons. His first lesson went perfectly. I could taste my long awaited revenge with Bob. Sniper struck his second pigeon hard, loosing his transmitter in the process. The tough city pigeon absorbed the blow and kept going. Sniper chased its tail toward a distant stand of trees. I walked the woodlot until well after dark but couldn’t find him. I resumed the search in the morning at an adjacent field with a few trees in the middle. From my truck I saw the Great-Horned Owl backlit on a pine branch. It was a long walk to the tree, where all that remained of my would-be assassin were a few parts on the ground. I’ll never know if Bob sent that Horned Owl, but I have my suspicions.
This was mid-September, 2002. Two falcons were dead; several others in disgrace for the sake of a Snipe. Though too late for a new Barbary, I could still manage a merlin if I got my gear together and found a weekend to trap her. I did, and what a bird: Lilly is the best merlin I’ve flown or seen fly – she is fearless, will chase anything and catch most things.
This is how it happened, how Bob and I finally caught up with one another. I was out that morning with Lilly, hawking sparrows. Working toward the back of the field, we approached a small pond when a Snipe flushed from the bank, climbed fast and vanished. I peered through my binoculars to see if any remained. Much to my delight, looking back at me from a muddy cow print was Bob’s familiar face.
I swiveled around to find Lilly. She was paddling in the breeze a hundred yards to my left and upwind. The pond was straight ahead. I whistled for the merlin. Lilly turned downwind toward me, pumping hard and building speed; the three of us were on a collision course. With Lilly ten feet from the pond, Bob snickered and blasted out of the mud. The merlin pulled in fast behind him. They zigged and zagged for ten more yards above the mud. Then Lilly stretched out her feet and snatched Bob from the air. She settled to the wet ground and quickly ended my eight-year Snipe hunt. In the same span I’ve caught hundreds of ducks, countless small birds and mammals, and a few partridge, pheasants and prairie chickens; but this short flight might be my fondest moment.
Thankfully Bob is survived by thousands of relatives in the fields of Florida and next year I will introduce them all to Lilly and a new tiercel Barbary Falcon.