Socorro County falconer and wildlife rehabilitator Matthew Mitchell was the center of attention during his workshop Deadly Beauty Photography until he let his raptors loose into the skies over Socorro County during the three-day Festival of the Cranes.
About 30 minutes before the raptor release, Mitchell had festival goers in the palm of his hand in the parking lot outside the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio on Dec 5.
Birders and photographers intently listened as Mitchell explained his workshop is very close to nature, where the law of survival of the fittest would be fully displayed.
Hawks and falcons are birds of prey and play a vital role in nature, including curbing rodent and rabbit populations. A tour through the nearby Bosque del Apache allows tourists to see several types of plump raptors who dine on unwary ducks.
The “prep talk” also lets attendees know that feathers might fly.
Following a 16-mile drive filled with anticipation because Mitchell has designed his workshop to meet the needs of photographers hoping to catch a bird of prey in flight — the workshop’s attendees are at the ready with their photography equipment
Once Mitchell’s Peregrine falcon/Harris’s hawk took flight, he went from the show’s star to the catalyst for the main attraction. Photographers like Las Cruces’s Cheryl Fallstead, like 14 other birders, was trying to get the bird on film or pixels.
While she is a long-time birder, Fallstead had never attended a festival like this.
“I was really excited to come out and learn from expert photographers. I took a couple of online festival classes, and that was nice to be able to do that from the comfort of my home,” Fallstead said.
Fallstead knows more about photography than the average person and understands the “M” on the dial doesn’t mean “magic,” but the festival’s photography classes are geared at all skill levels.
“I’m thinking that if you check the list of classes, you can find something that would fit your skill set and help you advance your skills, and also to have that infectious delight of being around other people with similar interests is so fun,” Fallstead said.
Mitchell has been involved with falconry since 1968, and as he explains, the birds need daily flight training to stay in shape and healthy. The workshop attendees who may have been thinking about picking up the sport realize it’s not like getting a new cat or dog.
He’s raised the first two birds he shows from birth, and they do their best to catch their meal as the photographers machine gun their cameras trying to capture the Peregrine falcon/Harris’s hawk hybrids in flight.
The birds are amazingly fast, and most of the photographers in attendance question whether or not they got a sharp image as they pan their cameras after them across the open sky.
Mitchell’s Harris’s hawks were the biggest hit as they are very comfortable around people and will stay close when trying to find a morsel of food that their owner keeps tucked away and always at the ready.
When a small piece of meat is tossed into the air, the pair of birds treat everyone to a display of aerial feats that include catching their snacks upside down in full flight.
As Socorro’s Deon Reynolds explained, it was a chance for the attendees to turn back the clock.
“I do feel like I’m 12 years old, and I can’t stop grinning,” Reynold said.
It got better as Reynolds donned a heavy leather glove and had the hawks fly up and land on his hand.
“This is so much fun, and you learn a lot. Matt does a great job at introducing people to the birds and making them comfortable around them,” Reynolds said.