Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"It's a dangerous business, going out your front door...

...you step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to." -- JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, peering off into the unknown. In a relatively short time, I'll board a plane for Ulaan Baatar - hop a bus 1055 miles to Olgii - and spend the next ten months with a horse and golden eagle pursuing fox across the lonely Altai mountains. Even typing such a sentence feels surreal. I've been loathe to say much until recently, as such plans have a necessarily tenuous air to them. Even though the end result is something everyone is familar with - an eagle pumping across the vast landscape to collide with a fox - there are endless small details that will go into making those few heart-stopping moments. All the feelings of worry, uncertainty, excitement, and adventure are starting to coalesce in me now.

But now I'm in Scotland - and incredibly grateful to be here. Sometimes, I can't help but smile when a plane touches down in a particular place. Scotland is one of those places. Whether we expect or not - certain spaces become part of us, ingrained in us. Coming from an Air Force family, I've never really settled anywhere long enough to truly call "home", but I have those feelings of contentedness and belonging here. I can't seem to stay away.

The road leading up to a friend's farm, esconsed in the hills of western Scotland.

This is a place I enjoy sitting. The creek winds across the valley to the base of the hills. Unfortunately, the air was thick with midges.

Characterisitc thistles

The sheep were sheared yesterday...

Falcons at hack, destined for the Middle East, play in the air over hack tower.

A young female crowned eagle, bred here in Britain, gives a penetrating stare.

The thought of holding my own in Mongolia scares me. Hell yes it does. I'm terrified. Often I feel little stabs of doubt. What on earth do I think I'm doing? I'm not good enough for this. I don't have the skill, or the talent, or the strength...

Then again, there are days like today. I was lazing on the lawn with Floyd, a male golden eagle. How much I would have loved to stand up in heather, in deep winter, with hills and hidden hares before me. How much I would have loved to have been hunting, breathing frigid air and tensed for the slip. And then I feel excitement - I feel those familar butterflies before what you know will be a great day's hunting. I think, I can't wait to get started.

Across China - Part II

After a week and a bit in Xi'an, we headed to Kunming. Often called the "City of Eternal Spring", Kunming is a lush, rain-drenched city in south-western China and the capital of Yunnan province.

Incense burning at a Buddhist temple.

The view of Kunming, algal-blooms and all, from the Western Hills.

Some of the rich flora dotting the city.

The Stone Forest. As the name implies, large limestone pillars jut from the ground and appear to "grow" upwards into a labyrinth of sorts. To me, it was like a giant playground. Paths wound around towering stone formations and ancient trees. I felt like I'd landed on an alien planet. How a Star Trek episode was never filmed here boggles the mind.

Here stands a World War II monument to the Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group of the Chinese Air Force in 1941-42. The monument particularly commemorated the flights "over the hump". The Hump was a treacherous route over the Eastern end of the Himalayas, by which US pilots resupplied struggling Chinese forces.

A provocative painting on display at a local art museum in Kunming. The Bird's Nest stands in the background.

Interesting goblets on display at a local cultural museum. Made by the Yi people (a local minority), they are clearly supported on goshawk feet. Hmmm - can't say I'd fancy drinking out of that.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Across China - Part I

When I first arrived in Xi'an, near midnight and bleary-eyed from travel, I noticed this quote, attributed to Confucius, written across our dorm building.

Xi'an is a sprawling, dusty city. The capital of China during the prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907) today Xi'an is in a constant state of construction and flux. Plans to build a subway cause debris to ripple down the center of many major roads and driving takes on a new kind of chaos.

I strolled down the ancient city wall, erected during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and peered across the city. The virtues and pitfalls of a rapidly growing economy could be seen here. Every direction saw buildings being rapidly constructed - and just as common were giant office buildings being torn down, those left half-built and vacant, or newly built and clearly abandoned.

Despite being enveloped in a city, there are always spots to linger. In fact, on the XISU (Xi'an International Studies University) campus there was a large park where students gather Thursday nights to practice their languages. There I noticed that Kazakhs were an important ethnic minority at the school. One could hear Russian, Spanish, French, German, Thai, Japanese and various dialects of Chinese coming from clumps of chatting students. Though they never hesitate to involve you in conversation, it certainly made me wish I had a knack for languages.

Men crowd around an intense game of Chinese chess.

Survival Chinese scrawled across a chalk board.

Hasty brush strokes during an introduction to calligraphy.

One bright and blue-sky (for China) day our class was challenged to a basketball game by local students.

The game began to draw quite a crowd from passersby. It was the week for sitting exams; there was already a certain tension in the air.

Very close - in the end we managed to pull it off.

Of course, one can not visit Xi'an without visiting the legendary Terracotta army.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the horses were as individual as the warriors.

One note: I knew China was taking the H1N1/Swine flu seriously, but hadn't anticipated men in a sort of Biohazard suit filing into our plane upon landing. We were told to remain still while they pointed 'temperature guns' at our foreheads in order to detect fever. If anyone was deemed ill – that person and everyone three rows ahead and three rows back was to be carted away to quarantine. There was one older man who evidently had a fever and they spent a further ten minutes running some on-the-spot tests on. When one of the suited men flashed the thumbs-up, declaring the passenger OK for entry, there was a collective sigh of relief and enthused applause. A strange experience to be sure.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Weather is the master variable in falconry – it affects a raptor’s mood and motivation, their flight style and strategy, the behavior and location of the quarry, the difficulty or ease of the terrain, and quite importantly, visibility. One condition I had not been familiar with prior to my time in Scotland was fog. Often the hills in Scotland are beset by dreich weather, and not uncommonly, by thick impenetrable fog. It can roll in from seemingly nowhere and roll out just as quickly. Some hills you can hardly see your hands in front of you while neighboring hills offer wide clear stretches. Perhaps most frustrating in the perpetually overcast country, is that one never really knows what the weather is doing “up there” on the hill from the villages below.

There is always a lot of preparation that goes into a day's hawking. Our spirits quickly sink if, turning off the motorway and rumbling up the path to the moors, we notice the familiar hilltops hidden in fog.

Sometimes we elect to wait it out, crunched into the truck and listening to eagles shift impatiently in their boxes. Sometimes we admit defeat, pack it up and head home - vowing to take off school or work to return the next day. Other times, we stick a transmitter in the truck for safety, ready the eagles, and head out anyway. To hell with the weather.

We walk in clumps, in a bunched line spanning no more than twenty or thirty yards; there is little reason to flush hares if they aren’t visible to us all or could disappear into the haze in moments. In the wet weather they tend to sit tight, and require more pressure to leap from their forms in the heather. Covering flat areas, the person slipping the eagle walks in the middle – eyes strained and hand hovering over the hood. While normally a hare gaining a significant head start means little more than a longer flight, in this situation every second counts. Any delay on the falconer’s part could mean the hare is that much father and therefore fainter to the pursuing eagle.

I always found this very stressful. In a good sort of way. I remember vividly slipping an eagle and instead of temporarily rooting myself to the spot to watch the flight unfold, running behind in an attempt to keep the pair in view. Its pale form fading fast, the eagle corkscrewed downward. To me, it was just a silhouette - angles moving sharply against a gray sky – but it was fast and fluid. I stopped for a moment, saw he was back in the air, and this time could barely discern the eagle rowing upwards, half-folding his wings and again plummeting after the hare. The fog leaves just enough to the imagination. Big bulky golden eagles can maneuver exquisitely. Throw out the details and watch the shapes – eagles will surprise you.

Some flights can go awry, but others make for adventure. John slipped an eagle, which hugged the contours of the hill and followed a hare right off a sheer hillside into a winding creek below. As soon as the hill dropped off, the eagle began an arcing wingover into the valley. I peered over the edge to see John pulling an entangled eagle and hare up from the creek onto a grassy bank - and grinning widely.

These are often one-kill sorts of days. Goldens have good waterproofing, but repeated crashes into soaking heather in air so thick it is almost drizzling takes its toll. Not to mention the nagging feeling that you are pushing your luck. After retrieving an eagle, I’d look around and see nothing but monotonous grey. Shouting to the waiting falconers, I’d make my way back to the party. Similarly, the hawking party would look around and realize that little of the visible landscape gave clue to where the trucks were. Out comes the telemetry. We trudge back as Neil tracks the trucks, reveling in our few kills and recounting flights before heading home with a small sense of accomplishment.

Monday, June 29, 2009


After five weeks crisscrossing China – I touched down in Chicago on Friday night. I had intended to blog while away, but discovered that Blogger.com was hidden behind the Great Firewall. With the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square only few weeks ago, on June 4th, the government cracked down on western media, networking sites and Internet forums with renewed vigor.

In fact, they flipped a switch shortly after I arrived in Xi’an. While watching the BBC in my dorm room, as well as a pair of azure-winged magpies out the window from the corner of my eye, the picture suddenly flickered and dissolved into static. I clicked to CNN, Deutsche Welle, a few Spanish language networks – static. China Central TV clicked on, as obnoxious and nasal as ever. It remained that way for my duration in the country. I never heard any mention of the so-called June 4th incident.

On my way to pick up Elaine yesterday, my friend had a 45 day old jerkin bouncing around the house. He’s a mellow, playful, ungainly creature, with tufts of down swaying on his head and a taste for killing socks and shoes. Over the weekend, while readjusting to the thirteen-hour time change and reflecting on the trip, I took to socializing the alternately excited and exhausted falcon. As I gather my thoughts - I'll start posting on the meanderings of my class through Xi'an, Kunming, Lijiang, Bejing and Shanghai.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Elaine is molting well this season. Her cere is yellowing up and those steely flecks of blue are finally beginning to overtake the immature body feathers.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lazing on a Summer Afternoon

Watching eagles find their wings is a wonderful way to spend your time during the summer. Eagles are notoriously ungainly and clumsy after they first fledge. A friend once compared casting off a young, unfit eagle to "lobbing a pillow" at quarry. Tame hacking is a falconry technique where just-fledged falcons, typically imprints, are given free-reign of the sky to learn to, as Tennyson puts it in his poem Rosalind, "Keep the upper skies" and "roam and wheel at will". At least, that is what they are supposed to do. The eagle in the video above preferred a kip.

Here a golden eagle at hack peers at thistles on the hillside
He leaps into flight, tail flaring wildly and wings overcompensating for the gusty winds.
The eagle begins to circle, gaining a little lift from the wind pushing against the hillside.

Already unsure, he scans the ground for a suitable spot to land.

Gray clouds encroach as he surveys the landscape.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Festival of Falconry

An e-mail from Kazakhstan pinged into my mailbox the other day. I laughed out loud when I opened the attachment - a photo with newly-made Kazakh friends at the Festival of Falconry, held in Reading, England in 2007. My camera died shortly after arriving – and I had virtually no photos of my own.

One thing I love about falconry meets on the Continent, is the rich multiculturalism. Sitting at dinner with falconers from several different nations, discussing the day's sport and a myriad of other things as best one can through shared languages and fragmented translations, never grows old.

Oddly, fragmented though the conversations may have been, I never remember them that way - the translator is quickly forgotten and, when I think back on the memory, it is as though we were conversing quite fine on our own.

With that sentiment, I enjoyed myself to no end in Reading - the Festival is proof that falconry transcends age, socioeconomic status, and language - it is amazing the kinds of detailed flights that one is able to gesticulate and recount through a small universal vocabulary! In particular, I found it a treasure for eagle falconry.

Eagle falconers from across Europe and central Asia attended. I fondly recall discussing such things as the Velvet Revolution and its impacts on falconry with a Slovak, methods of hacking eagles with an Austrian, the homeryi race of golden eagles with a Belgian, the thrill of waiting-on flights with the Brits, and the virtues of passage eagles with Kazakhs.

Of course, there is much more than the eagle side of things, and far more to be said on the event in general. The second Festival is scheduled for July 11-12th, 2009.

One photo I did manage; Turkmen falconers.