by Eric Wallace
Jennifer Westhoff stands in a high meadow, swinging a black leather falcon lure by a long string. Imitating a circling crow, she whirls it in broad, lasso-like loops before slinging it high into the air.
Circling some 40 feet overheard, her Lanner falcon, Lily, spies the action and dives, her talons extended, catching and driving the lure hard into the ground. The bird pecks at the lure’s faux skull until Westhoff, a licensed master falconer and certified raptor trainer, calls Lily to her gloved left hand.
With the Page Valley stretching below and the Shenandoah National Park lining the horizon, the tableau feels beautiful – and primal.
Falconry, the sport of using birds of prey to hunt in the wild, dates back more than 4,000 years to Mesopotamia. Royal courts in Europe, the Middle East and Asia kept prized raptors for hunting.
Paired with a falconer and dogs, the trained birds swept through fields and forests catching flushed-out small game like squirrels, quail and pheasant. Today, practitioners are rare, with fewer than 5,000 in the United States and only a portion of those having their own birds.
Westhoff’s facility in Stanley is one of few in the U.S. offering visitors a taste.
Customers can “fly” up to six species of raptors. Though packages vary – starting at $125 per person and ranging from 1.5 to four hours – an afternoon may yield encounters with a Eurasian eagle owl, barn owl, American kestrel, Eurasian kestrel, Harris’s hawk, and, of course, Lily the Lanner falcon.
Indigenous to areas surrounding the Mediterranean, Lanners like Lily have been preferred by falconers for more than 1,000 years. Their flight pattern and sociability make them ideal for educational settings. While peregrine falcons fly high and dive at 200 mph, Lanners have a horizontal hunting style and stick to lower loops. Because they hunt in mated pairs and groups, birds consider trainers primary companions. “Lily views visitors as an addition to our hunting group,” Westhoff says. “Because she trusts me, she’ll work with them.”
Launched last spring, Raptor Hill is the embodiment of a 25-year dream. As a child Westhoff was interested in art, animals and the outdoors. Blending the three, she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in scientific illustration, specializing in animals. After college, she worked at zoos while freelancing as an illustrator for textbooks and scientific papers.
She discovered falconry during a summer gig at Baltimore’s Carrie Murray Nature Center. There she helped a master falconer train non-releasable raptors for educational programming.
“That he could get these wild birds to respond to him amazed me,” she says. “There’s something magical about being that close to a bird of prey. I knew right away falconry was something I wanted to pursue.”
But becoming a licensed falconer isn’t easy. It begins with a sponsored apprenticeship that lasts two or more years and involves more than 100 contact-hours with a bird. Licenses vary by level of expertise, with master permits taking about seven years to acquire. Costs are steep – enclosures can cost upward of $2,000; gloves, $150; hoods, from $60; lures, from $30; GPS tracking equipment, around $1,000; raw meat, $3 to $5 per bird, per day. And that’s before insurance. As well, falconers face extensive state and federal regulations.
Westhoff learned in her free time while working at wildlife education centers in Vermont and Maryland – mostly with birds of prey. By 1998, she was a master falconer. Two years later, a job at the Luray Zoo brought her to Virginia.
The idea for Raptor Hill took root in 2011, when Westhoff left Luray to work for Massanutten Resort. There she hoped to create a groundbreaking raptor program.
“I’d long had the idea that facilitating intimate encounters with birds of prey would be an attractive tourism opportunity,” she says. “What I envisioned went beyond natural history talks and wildlife education: I wanted people to experience the awe and wonder of a falcon swooping down from the sky and landing on their arm.”
Management was wary. Having meat-eating birds soaring around a resort seemed dangerous. Westhoff was relegated to implementing rescue programming and lecturing in classrooms. In 2014, Salamander Resort asked her to do the same for them. The responsibilities kept her busy.
But in the fall of 2017, she took a risk: “I was lecturing a 100-person group and interest was waning, when suddenly I heard myself exclaim, ‘Let’s go outside and see what these birds can do!’ ”
Participants watched Lily soar through trees, snatch treats from midair and land on command. Afterward, they asked about bookings. “Everybody was so excited,” Westhoff says. “They wanted to bring friends, spouses, children, grandkids. That’s when I knew I was going into business for myself.”
By the spring, she’d parceled off acreage adjacent to her home, constructed a Tudor-style educational classroom, built a display enclosure for Lily, and secured insurance. Raptor Hill was born. Westhoff began offering private raptor encounters for pairs and small groups. The result is an adventure like no other in the state.
“The experiences Jennifer offers are authentic and immersive,” says Andrew King, president of the Virginia Falconers’ Association. “If you’re interested in learning more about birds of prey and experiencing the fundamentals of falconry firsthand, we can recommend no better place in the region.”
Visits begin in the classroom, with an overview of raptor natural history and the origins of falconry as a hunting sport. Westhoff follows by teaching participants basic maneuvers and safety protocols, performing tricks and flight stunts throughout. Next comes a trip through fields and walking paths, where visitors get to fly one or more birds. Testimonials often include words like “magical” and “mystical.”
“People leave feeling connected to these amazing animals,” she says. “Given the threats of climate change and habitat loss, they ask what they can do to help protect raptors in the wild. That’s more than affirming; that brings me great joy.”