Discover the fabulous world of raptors right in East County’s backyard
By Josh Stotler
September 19, 2022 (Alpine) -- As I hike along the dirt trail, the morning fog rolls through the canyon. A hawk swoops from a branch and glides gently by. I am in awe as this amazing creature effortlessly soars by me, heading for the sun-drenched rock just to my left. It is a treat to see this animal up close and I’m lost in the moment, completely enveloped in the East County back country. This is no chance encounter though; I am at Sky Falconry, a 40 acre ranch located in the hills of Alpine.
When I arrived at the property earlier in the morning, the fog was heavy and the diffused sun rays were shining through the oak trees. I was warmly greeted by Kirk Sellinger and Denise Disharoon, the owners of Sky Falconry. Dressed exactly as one would envision a raptor handler to look (think Dr.’s Sadler & Grant from Jurassic Park) they quickly made me feel at home. As the other participants arrived and shuffled toward the circle of benches, we filled out a waiver and it was time to learn about these amazing birds.
A safety briefing, some fun trivia on raptors and then it was time to meet Steam, a two-pound female Harris’ hawk. We learn that Falconry is an ancient sport of hunting with birds of prey: hawks, eagles, falcons, owls and even some old world vultures. As Denise tells us about Steam, Kirk brings her over to the group.
It is apparent by the actions and demeanor of both the handler and the bird that Kirk truly is a Master Falconer. We each receive a leather glove, protection from the razor-sharp talons that are capable of 400 lbs. per square inch of crushing strength.
It was now time to line up and have our first interaction with Steam. One by one we hold out our gloved fist and give the call we were taught, “give me steam” (a nod to the Peter Gabriel song, “Steam”). This command is well known by the hawk and in no time at all, you are in the presence of one of the most beautiful animals you have ever seen and she’s sitting right there on your fist.
After our initial encounter, it was time for our “Hawk Walk”, just one of the classes Sky Falconry offers. We set out as a small group, walking a trail and learning about Steam, her typical environment, hunting abilities, preferred prey and the basics of bird handling. All the while, Steam is soaring by the group, perching in lofty branches and when called, landing on our leather clad fists.
Seeing this magnificent bird swoop, soar, dive and interact with all of us is truly something you have to see to believe. A secondhand account doesn’t even come close to describing the exhilaration of interacting with the majesty of these animals. The group I was with thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the Hawk Walk--smiles, excitement, and lots of opportunity for some pretty spectacular pictures. This group was not disappointed!
After our amazing hike, I had a chance to talk with Denise and Kirk about their operation. It is abundantly clear that they love what they do, and it is reflected in the exuberance and passion that they exude as they inform the public about their beloved birds, of which they currently have seven. Fun and excitement aside, the mission of Sky Falconry is one of education and conservation. I asked Denise, also a Master Falconer, to tell me more about what they do and what they hope to accomplish in educating the general public about these important animals.
She told me, “I think it’s important for people to know that we hold a Federal Education Permit from U.S. Fish & Wildlife that allows non-licensed falconers to legally glove up and free fly trained birds of prey.” This is an important tool that allows people who are not certified to own and handle raptors, like myself, the opportunity to interact and learn about these animals hands-on.”
Denise added ,“Our feeling is that you are only going to love and protect what you know. Giving people an opportunity to have an intimate, face to face encounter with a bird of prey in its natural habitat that chooses to interact with you, we feel like it really drives home our message of conservation and encourages people to want to protect these birds.”
All native raptor species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This important law has aided in the regulation and protection of these birds. Nationwide, raptors face a number of issues including habitat loss, pesticides, lead poisoning, impacts from climate change and even wind turbine power generators; collectively these account for the deaths of millions of birds per year.
The team at Sky Falconry is dedicated to the preservation of these amazing birds through education and conservation. They emphasized that while some might have an immediate negative reaction to wild birds being kept in captivity, falconry is a different type of relationship with a wild animal. Kirk describes this relationship is based on a mutual trust between animal and handler. In actuality, there isn’t a lot a handler can do to make the bird stay. The falcons could leave at any point. “The relationship with the bird continues because the bird choses for it to continue,” he concludes.
Sky Falconry is celebrating ten years of educating the public through its falconry school. Falconry is a unique activity that is both educational and fun for the whole family.
You can book a class through their website www.SkyFalconry.com. This is a chance to get out into the fresh air and share an unforgettable experience that will have everyone talking about it all the way home.