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Who Is That Guy With The 'Giant Bird' In South Austin?

Max Shpak holds Caesar, a female red-tailed hawk
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Max Shpak holds Caesar, a female red-tailed hawk, at a field in South Austin.

Stacie Ferguson’s commute can get repetitive: She leaves work, picks up the kids at day care and, often, gets stuck in traffic on her way to her South Austin home.

“Sometimes I’m sitting there for a little while and get a chance to kind of observe,” she said.

That’s what she was doing earlier this year when she saw something she’s never seen before: a man with a really big bird.

"The first time I thought he was out there maybe training a dog. Then I got a closer look and I realized it was a giant bird," she laughed.

Ferguson says it got her wondering: What kind of bird was it? Who was this guy? Did he work for the zoo?

She started seeing the man with the massive bird regularly, walking along the road or standing in the field. She wanted to pull over and get some answers, but she never did. 

“I didn’t want to scare the bird, and I also didn’t want to scare the kids in the car, so I didn’t get out,” she said.

Then, a couple months after Ferguson started seeing him, he vanished. So she turned to KUT’s “Hi, Who Are You?” project for answers.

"I'm just really excited to meet this person and maybe get the chance to meet a really beautiful bird," she said. 

But first we'd have to find him.

The Search

It turns out Ferguson wasn’t the only one who noticed the bird. People who run the church that owns the land have spoken to him. Paula Meehan says she would often watch him from her front yard near Old Manchaca Road.

“He puts his arm out and then he’ll blow the whistle and then the bird will fly back to his arm,” she said.

But she also didn't have any idea who the guy was.

Not to worry! The community of people who train these birds is pretty tightknit, so a general inquiry directed at the Facebook group for the Texas Hawking Associationyielded results.

Meet Caesar

The bird, named Caesar, is a female red-tailed hawk. The falconer is Max Shpak.

In his day job, Shpak is a research scientist. But during off hours, he's also an apprentice falconer.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Shpak, an apprentice falconer, has been training Caesar since last year.

He says he has been interested in birds of prey since college, but it takes a lot of work and investment to become a falconer. You need to pass a test, get permitted by the state, and do two years of work with a mentor.

Shpak caught Caesar – a dappled white, brown and a rusty red hawk – near Granger Lake last year.

“The first week was a white knuckles experience because she would startle easily,” he said of the process of taming a wild raptor.

Shpak said there’s a tremendous aesthetic appeal to birds of prey.

"They’re just very striking and magnificent animals," he said. "And there’s certainly a great feeling of satisfaction to take a wild raptor and get it to be accustomed to you, respond to commands and essentially become a hunting partner."

Now that she is used to him, the two are hunting partners. They go out in search of rabbits and squirrels, although it's usually too hot in the summer. He also takes her to nearby green spaces to keep up her training.

That’s where Ferguson, her husband, Patrick, and their kids met Shpak and Caesar on a cool early summer morning.

“She gorgeous!” Ferguson said of the hawk, with its intense raptor eyes and 4-foot wingspan. 

Shpak set Caesar on a perch in the field and attached her leash to a tether line to keep her away from powerlines. Then he walked several steps back and began to blow a whistle. At first, Caesar seemed uninterested, but after a while, she spread her wings and leapt from her perch to his gloved arm. 

“The bird flew!” Ferguson's son Kai exclaimed.

Shpak said in a year he’ll release Caesar back into the wild and find another bird to train. When he does, Ferguson said, she and her kids will keep their eyes open during their afternoon commute, hoping for a glimpse of the man with the giant bird.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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