Fairbanks falconer puts in time, effort for love of flight

FAIRBANKS — Dave Lorring spoke to his peregrine falcon named “80” as he unfastened the leash and sent her out on a duck hunt.

“You behave now and come back to me,” he told her.

In less than a minute, the female falcon was airborne and far from the Creamer’s Field barn. She turned in a high circle somewhere near Wedgewood Resort until she was a distant speck.

Lorring repeats some kind of last-minute plea most times he releases one of his birds on their own.

It’s an open question whether these highly-trained but independent animals will return. On their own they can fall prey to eagles, foxes, cars and telephone wires.

To Lorring and a handful of others falconers in Interior Alaska, it’s worth the anxiety to train these birds of prey and let them free into the skies. For Lorring, seeing the hawks in flight is the highlight.

“The biggest payoff for me is just to watch the falcons in their natural state, flying high and then coming down and diving on their prey,” he said.

Eventually, 80 came back to Lorring on this flight. But first she obstinately took a perch on a telephone pole across College Road, completely ignoring the group of mallard ducks Lorring flushed out of a pond for her to hunt.

Lorring walked over to near the Alaska Department of Fish and Game building and brought 80 back to him as he often does, coaxing her in with a live pigeon on a string and then offering her a favorite meal, quail meat.

As the bird landed on the ground nearby, Lorring cursed himself for dropping his protective leather glove on the ground back by the barn.

He made do by pulling his cotton sweatshirt over his hand and barely winced as 80 flew up to take a perch there, the bird’s sharp talons digging in. There was clearly a connection between man and bird, as Lorring carefully wiped a piece of blood off 80’s beak.

Lorring is a commercial pilot and former Alaska Wildlife Trooper. He’s been hunting with falcons since he was 12 years old.

Both 80 and Lorring’s female gyrfalcon named Summit are some of the most mild-mannered raptors he’s ever had, he said.

The peregrine falcon recognizes his voice and calls out to him when Lorring gets home, “somewhat like a dog wags its tail,” he said.

See FALCON, page C-2

Lorring is a commercial pilot and former Alaska Wildlife Trooper. He’s been hunting with falcons since he was 12 years old.

Both 80 and Lorring’s female gyrfalcon named Summit are some of the most mild-mannered raptors he’s ever had, he said.

The peregrine falcon recognizes his voice and calls out to him when Lorring gets home, “somewhat like a dog wags its tail,” he said.

See FALCON, page C-2

More than a connection between a hunter and a dog, his connection with Summit brought to mind the trained velociraptors in this summer’s Jurassic Park movie, in particular the scene where Chris Pratt’s character lovingly pats the nose of a muzzled dinosaur.

Lorring’s gyrfalcon went without a name her first few years. Only this year did he settle on Summit, for her birthplace near Summit Lake on the Richardson Highway.

He picked 80 because his son had a college classmate named 80 and he liked the name.

How to train a raptor

As trained birds of prey, Lorring’s falcons calmly tolerate Lorring taking their hood on and off. They also don’t mind the weight of a radio transmitter on their legs.

They have learned to associate the sound of a whistle with food. Usually the sound of the whistle and a bird or lure on a string is enough to bring them back to him.

“In initial training they’re on a leash, but pretty soon you’re going to have to take them off,” Lorring said. “On that first flight you’re going to have to hope that bird flies to your fist with no restraints.”

If a bird eats while it’s out on its own, it will have no motivation to return to its master, Lorring said. The falconer will likely have to return to the same area in a day when the bird is hungry again.

The radio transmitter has been a key modern advancement to the ancient art of falconry, Lorring said. Before that, falconers listened for the sound of bells around the bird’s ankles.

Difficult sport

Raising a raptor is a lifestyle as much as a hobby. In addition to raising their falcons, they also often raise their food. Lorring traps pigeons at the downtown Fairbanks parking garage for use in training and feeding his falcons. He also orders live chukars, a type of south Asian pheasant, from Minneapolis. He keeps a freezer full of quail meat.

Lorring is one of about nine falconers he knows of in Interior Alaska, and that’s probably a near-complete list because falconers generally know each other, he said. The state has strict regulations on the types of birds falconers are allowed to take and which birds they use for training.

Lorring’s license permitted him to collect both 80 and Summit from the wild. 80 came from a nest off the Yukon River.

Inefficient hunt

Falcons aren’t nearly as effective as shotguns for harvesting lots of waterfowl.

Lorring came to Creamer’s Field almost every weeknight this fall, setting Summit and 80 after ducks and geese on some of the front ponds.

The raptors didn’t kill any ducks or geese the whole season, but toward the end of the season they got in better flying shape and were able to chase some ducks down a stream. Before freeze-up, the ducks were able to escape Summit and 80 by diving into the water.

The peregrine falcon can fly at speeds of more than 200 mph, making it the fastest animal on Earth. But much of its speed comes from flying high and diving. If 80 misses on her initial dive, she and a duck are fairly evenly matched, each flying at about 50 mph in what’s known as a tail-chase.

The falcons did catch their share of the chukars and pigeons during this fall’s season, but even these training birds sometimes escaped the falcons with acrobatic flying moves.

Coming home without any ducks after two months of hunting doesn’t bother Lorring much.

“A successful day of falconing is when you come back with the same number of falcons as you left with,” he likes to say.

The original story can be found on the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s website: http://bit.ly/1Hlbhnv

Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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