Schwartz goes back to Bemidji
For Ben "Bubba" Schwartz the road back to Bemidji (the home of his youth) is rife with setback and success, sprinkled with a healthy dose of adventurous flavor. Not that he's a full-time resident again mind you, but, for the summer at least, this southern Arizona falconer is occupying a prominent space at Bemidji's Headwaters Science Center. It's here that Schwartz is rousing public interest in the natural world with his small collection of raptors and reptiles.
Never one to let much grass grow around his feet, Schwartz has received mail on five different continents. "Looking west from Bemidji at sunset, you wonder what is between you and the sun," said Schwartz, "One day I took off to find out." Among his many stops, the 53-year-old played a year of football at UND, was on the club rowing team at the University of Oregon, did a tour with the U.S. Marine Corps, was a cook in a thatched-roof restaurant in Tahiti, rescued a stranded climber on a Mexican mountain, was a sports radio host in Tucson, Ariz., and a chef in a Mexican restaurant in New Zealand.
But it wasn't until his father became ill that Schwartz began to settle into something resembling a rooted existence. He moved to a Tucson suburb with his daughter to care for his aging parents. In Schwartz's words, "My dad was wrestling with Parkinson's (Disease) and I showed up to help him get to the matches."
It was during this time that Schwarz discovered the thrill and excitement of falconry. The art of falconry has been practiced for centuries. Often called the "sport of kings," its early roots are a little murky. But somewhere in Asia or Arabia, someone had the grand idea to hunt with these magnificent creatures. As Schwartz said, "The only thing in written history older than falconry is religion."
For him it has almost become a religion. From a budding curiosity, the interest accelerated into a full-time endeavor. He now runs his own non-profit, the Raptor Rehabilitation Project. On his Arizona property sit a number of flyways and mews (falconry speak for hawk cage) where Schwartz spends countless hours bringing in injured birds from near death, to be released back into the wild. And he still finds the time to raise a daughter, fly his raptors, put on educational programs, and play Santa Claus. Yes, Santa Claus.
Hunting with birds of prey is something few experience. There are only about 4,000 falconers in the U.S. with about a dozen in North Dakota. For most the reward is not so much filling a freezer as it is the thrill of watching one's bird do its thing. The typical falconer, according to Schwartz, is "a bit of a non-conformist who values being outdoors and relishes the higher level of drama hunting with a hawk creates." The added bonus, says Schwartz is, "having a nice bit of duck and not biting down on any buckshot."
Equally exciting for Schwartz is the opportunity to share his birds and knowledge of them to the public. "It's like I have a real pretty sea shell and I want to show it to anyone who is interested," he said. Traveling with him is a Peregrine Falcon named Filena, a Great Horned Owl known as Oswald and a Red-tailed Hawk he calls O'Reilly. Young Filena is his flying huntress, while Oswald and O'Reilly are rehab birds that are unreleasable. Rehab birds still have tremendous value, however. Schwartz said, "They are great educational display specimens because they put a face on the ideals of environmental awareness." (Check out a short video of Schwartz and Filena at www.westfargopioneer.com/outdoors.)
Once the chilly winds of autumn begin to blow, he will head back down to Arizona and make preparations for another Christmas. It seems the barrel-chested Schwartz endured a six-week stint in Los Angeles last holiday season and was named the most authentic looking Santa Claus there. "My button nose won't get me on the cover of GQ, but in the world of real, bearded Santas, I'm the guy," he said.
Schwartz is in the process of lining up educational programs for the remainder of the summer and into the early school year. One is as near as Fertile, Minn., on Aug. 26 (Agassiz Environmental Learning Center--218-945-3129). "Give me a room full of fifth-graders and a good time will be had by all," Schwartz said. If anyone is interested in scheduling a program or finding out more about falconry feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or a person can always stop in to the Headwaters Science Center in Bemidji and ask for Bubba.