An adult male Harris’s hawk has a length of about 20 inches, a wingspan of about three-and-a-half feet and a hokey sense of humor. That’s why Rangle, one of the six hawks in residence at the Woodstock Inn’s New England Falconry Center in Vermont, likes to hop off his perch and scuttle around the ground, pecking at slugs and tufts of grass. “Look at me,” he seems to be saying. “I’m not an ancient symbol of warrior nobility, hallowed with millennia of reverence. I’m a kooky chicken!”
But then he goes and swoops from a treetop to your wrist at 40 miles per hour, landing in a splay of brilliant plumage, and you understand why Genghis Khan thought this made for a fashion-forward accessory. Hawks are one of nature’s reminders that Homo sapiens is hopelessly outclassed, not only in speed and grace, but in cool.
Rangle’s chicken act, it turns out, isn’t a behavior shared by every member of his species. Harris’s hawks have distinct personalities—one of the many facts about raptors that you learn during a visit to New England Falconry. While the Woodstock Inn is famous throughout the Northeast as a destination for weddings, spa days and picturesque vacations, since the falconry center opened in July, it’s now become popular as a destination to meet a Eurasian eagle owl.
Housed in a restored red barn on a hillside with a view of Mount Tom, the center offers 45-minute hands-on sessions ($95) with its birds, complete with loaner Hunter boots and Barbour jackets. First comes an introductory tour and presentation, in which you’ll learn that Harris’s hawks hunt in packs like wolves and can live to be about 35 years old in captivity. Then it’s time to don a heavy leather glove and march up the mown hillside, hawk in tow. Jessica Snyder, one of the falconers, restrains Rangle from a premature launch by holding his “jesses,” leather straps on his legs worn alongside little bells and a transmitter in case he tries to make a dash for freedom—an unlikely occurrence, since he was hatched in captivity and knows the hand that feeds him. In this case, yours. The birds are trained to fly to any outstretched glove they see, knowing that they’ll get a tidbit of raw beef, so visitors are encouraged to keep their arms lowered unless they want to catch a handful of raptor.
Which is really the point. Despite his wingspan, his knifing beak and talons built for vivisection, Rangle lands with all the weight of a butterfly. He makes barely a tap. Then, good-naturedly, he pokes and nibbles at the glove, clearly enjoying the contact. Holding a Harris’s hawk at arm’s length, you assess him like a museum piece: the filigree in his plumage, the ridge of his brow, the gun-barrel intensity of his stare. It’s an experience that convinces you that dinosaurs most certainly wore feathers. Then he flings himself into the sky, and in an eye blink, he’s a hundred feet away in the treetops.
The program is open to the general public, but any visit to Woodstock is incomplete without a stay at the inn. The spa demands at least an afternoon to experience its scented steam rooms, outdoor Jacuzzi and fireplace, and first-rate treatments (like the hot chocolate body wrap). Beware of the boutique. It’s a study in how curatorial expertise—evidenced by Zents aromatherapy and charming mittens made from recycled sweaters—can entrap a wallet.
After falconry and massage, finish a perfect day with dinner at the resort’s AAA Four Diamond restaurant, The Red Rooster. The elegant bar attracts a neighborhood clientele, and the cocktail program leans on local ingredients, as does the menu. Salads draw from the resort’s organic garden, and the nearby farms boast an embarrassment of cheeses. Don’t miss the three-beet appetizer with Cremont double cream cheese or the New England lamb chops with kale and pumpkin puree. Alternatively, pull up a cozy armchair in Richardson’s Tavern for a bean cassoulet with pork belly and a beer from one of the outstanding nearby breweries, like the malty red Valor Ale by 14th Star Brewing Company. The downstairs game room is kitted out with free 1980s arcade machines, shuffleboard and vintage pinball, while a seat by the lobby’s great fireplace is a snug place to nurse a nightcap.
The Woodstock Inn has always been a welcoming base for exploring the Green Mountains. With the addition of New England Falconry, it offers a heightened perspective on one of Vermont’s iconic towns.
-If you’re shy about handling a hawk, you can attend an intro session as an observer for $30.
-The center’s red barn and surrounding mountains make for excellent photography backdrops.
-Harris’s hawks are native to the Southwest, so extreme cold weather makes them unhappy. Take note when planning your visit.
The Woodstock Inn & Resort 14 The Green, Woodstock, Vermont (888-338-2745) woodstockinn.com