Friday, February 27, 2009

Falconry on the Isle of Arran

Yesterday I visited an eagle breeding project. The birds and enclosures were immaculate. Throughout the day, one could hear a pair of Bonelli's eagles calling to eachother periodically in the background. High-pitched but strong, the sounds suited the lanky, long-legged Iberian birds. As we ate lunch in a lovely greenhouse-esque room, a pair of pied crows fluttered down from the rafters to investigate. I had not experienced captive corvids before, they are wonderfully curious creatures. The day got me thinking about a unique falconry meet I attended.

Two years ago, I was eating lunch with a friend at another eagle breeding project. Andrew and his family had very kindly "taken me in" that season. It was September, and no Bonelli's were calling to eachother, but a male was perched out in the garden, methodically preening in the perpetual Scottish drizzle. "Would you like to go to a falconry meet this weekend?" I hesitated, it was quite early in the year, and I was supposed to be attending orientation activities at Glasgow University. "It is on the Isle of Arran." That did it; the thought of hawking on a Scottish isle was so foreign and different to me. A few days later, I was locking up my flat and hurrying down the steps to catch a cab, and then a bus back to Andrew's.

After loading up and a short ride to the west coast of Scotland, we drove aboard the ferry. It was only an hour long jaunt across the Firth of Clyde. The isle was utterly green and the air full of a salty humidity. It was the antithesis of what I was used to hawking in; flat plains with dried grass, skeleton brush and bare trees. A group of longwingers, who had been flying red grouse the day prior, were already there and soon joined us. Brown hares were our quarry today. They had been introduced to Arran some time ago. We assembled on a gently sloping hillside, which rolled down into the firth. Holy Island could be seen just offshore. The conditions were incredibly pleasant all around.

Harris hawks, red-tails and this Bonelli's were flown off-the-fist and (some) out-of-the-hood. While some hares would spring from our feet, many would get up thirty or forty yards out and make for longer, exciting flights. The Harris hawks were quite successful, as the hard-flown birds typically are. The Bonelli's would launch, all wings and legs - picking up speed with rapid-fire wingbeats and folding at the final moment before impact. The eagle possessed an almost accipiter-like agility and could turn on a dime without committing himself, as a golden would be forced to.

While walking along in our line, a resident falconer told me about the success of flying golden eagles waiting-on over such ground in years' past. I could picture this - the breeze off the sea against the hillsides, or in some places, the cliff faces, ought to provide wonderful lift for an experienced golden. Falconry for me had always been practiced in some landlocked scape. But now, the thought of watching an eagle hang above on an onshore breeze, was certainly appealing. The falconers were characters, and returning to the hotel in the small, clustered village for dinner offered great food and banter. I even learned a few words of Gaelic ("Slàinte mhòr agad!"). A lot of ground was covered and several hares were taken over the course of the weekend. It had struck me very oddly yesterday, the sound of the calling Bonelli's, and suddenly brought the memory of this field meet rushing back.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


In Oklahoma it is often said, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes." There is another place where this is true. The first time I was up on open moorland with eagles, just as we set out, I snapped the first photo above. An hour later, after Neil and John had made a circuit around the hill, we returned to the trucks caked in fresh snow. I quickly took the second photo before gratefully leaping back into the heated truck. The rapidity at which conditions can change is startling, and often bares no resemblance to weather on the lowland. When windy or foggy on the motorway below, it could either be compounded or non-existent on the hills above.

During the early part of the season, it is easy to gravitate towards the areas of thick heather where hares are most likely to be hunkered down. In the latter part of the season, when the now white-coated hares are more active, and often found romping about in the open - one can easily spot small white forms dotting the landscape. In both cases, though a dog certainly makes things easier, it is possible to get by without one. Snow however adds many variables to the equation. Once the landscape is blanketed in snow - a reliable dog becomes invaluable. The land is uniform and the hares are hidden. One can walk within inches of a snow-bound blue hare and never spot the black eyes or black-tipped ears.

If the dog catches the scent and the hare flushed - it leaps from its fragile chamber in a in a shower of powder and sails across the hill. The eagle is slipped and powers away in pursuit. But the falconers struggle. With the undulating landscape, there is no telling where the snow is shallow or deep, strong or weak. I recall once slipping an eagle and running to retrieve him after a miss in such conditions. Although things started out steady, I soon found myself shoulder-high in a drift, sputtering snow and red-faced as I struggled to get out and make my way towards the waiting eagle. After I managed to trudge back onto firm ground I was exhausted. (Certainly snowshoes would help in this matter!)

While in normal conditions, a fit eagle can bounce off the heather and back into flight after a miss, in the snow the impact has consequences. It may take a few seconds for an eagle to extract itself, by which time the hare has found the uphill course and secured its safety. Or if the flight has carried on a few hundred yards it can be difficult to determine visually whether the eagle has actually taken the hare. The sight of a golden on an invisible hare, pushed beneath the top layer of snow by the weight of the bird, is a unique one. These days are particularly memorable not only because of the pristine winter aesthetic, but because the transformative effect of snow shifts the dynamic between hare, eagle, dog and falconer to ensure success is hard won.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Inquisitive Imprints

A few summers ago, I receded into the curious minds of imprints. Quite unexpectedly, I ended up with a fourteen day old peregrine in my Glasgow flat. She was to stay with me for a while, before being tame-hacked and hunted. In no time, she became an excitable and moody half-feathered falcon, with an entertaining desire for exploration. Teetering on blue feet, her toes so long and thin they seemed a caricature - she raced across the ground. Often I would take her to a wide-open park, ensconced in the center of Glasgow, and lounge in the grass. After precarious sprints she would collapse near me and doze in the sunshine, a ball of fluff and pins.

Some of the very first articles I read on eagles in falconry detailed the experience of hand-raising young eyasses in the home. They left an impression on me, and I often thought of what it must be like to have an eaglet clamber about. What was their mentality really like? When a friend acquired a twenty-two ounce, two-week old male for hare hunting, I saw opportunity. I spent many, many hours with the young bird. Most of the time he would stretch out his feathered tarsi, curl his thick toes and drift in and out of contented sleep. Predatory eyes and a bright yellow cere shone from beneath a mantle of fluff. The feathers that soon peeked beneath the thick down were nearly jet black. The sun would lighten them before too long, but for now they created a fitting contrast. The downy eagle was a stoic bird. He possessed a reserved intelligence and seemed content to observe the world around him. Unlike the peregrine, who would quickly bound on unsteady feet, standing up was quite a calculating ordeal for the eagle in the beginning. Similarly, churning his wings in an evening breeze was only done after some consideration. To the astute - which I am far from - there is much insight into their mindset to be gleaned from the fuzz-bucket stage. As we get our first glimmers of spring – sharing those lazy summer days with an ever-growing eaglet is something I reflect fondly on.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Whither fly ye, what game spy ye..."?

Before duck season closed in Oklahoma, I had one flight in particular that remains framed in my mind’s eye.

On an almost warm, blue-sky and thermal-laden day, I spotted a secluded pond with a dozen gadwalls. Walking out in the field, my falcon was pumping her wings in anticipation. Without so much as a mute or rouse, she left the fist and began to mount. She kicked out a half mile and came back overhead at about 500 ft. She was still climbing, but in my impatience I went ahead and flushed. Down Elaine came, amid a tight bunch of gadwalls. To my surprise, she missed. She might've put a foot on one but certainly didn't definitively knock one down. They scattered and she stooped past a drake as it turned suddenly and skidded back into the water. Elaine began to remount, but there was little chance I was going to get the lone duck to fly from this medium-sized pond. I was in great need of a dog.

Several minutes went by as I tried in vain to cleanly flush this duck and contemplated what to do. Elaine was now up 800-1000ft and looking good. The gadwall might flit from one end of the pond to the other – but that was assuredly all. After a few more minutes I glanced up - and couldn't see my falcon. The telemetry suggested she was still up and nearby. I scoured the sky and spotted two red-tails soaring far up, circling in a thermal. Then even higher, I spied a slight dot. “Surely not”, I thought. Once I centered my binoculars on it, I could barely discern Elaine, her tail fanned out and wings spread on the thermal. How high she was – I have no idea. Very, very high.

I couldn't squander this pitch. As I stood on the edge of the pond, I wondered aloud whether I should jog to another pond a half mile west. Just then, in an incredible stroke of luck, I saw a large duck a few hundred yards off flying this way. He was coming closer and flared in surprise when he saw me. Suddenly, I caught from the corner of my eye a plummeting teardrop. My heart in my throat, I watched the silhouette, completely vertical, streak against the sky for what felt like ages. I had never seen such a flight from my peregrine before. Down, down, down – she dropped just beneath the mallard before curving upward with all that speed and momentum - and binding. Feathers sailed into the air. The entangled pair tumbled onto the ground. After a stunned moment I began to run across the field. When I arrived, Elaine had a weakly-protesting drake mallard by the head, a streak of feathers across the ground.

Longwinging still remains a steep learning curve for me, but I felt as though I had glimpsed something special. The weather and variables had conspired for a truly enjoyable day. I walked back to my truck twenty minutes later - all in all muddy, frozen and with a newly sprained ankle – but I could not stop smiling.

Kazakh Song of the Steppe

Yntan, an Kazakh eaglehunter of western Monogolia, strums a dombra and sings a song of hunting far from home. There were only a few candles alight that night, and my camera could not capture any light for this short video - but the song captures the timelessness of winter life in Bayan-Olgii. Yntan, now in his late seventies, has been flying eagles since his teenage years, taught by his father, and his father by his father before him.


Falconry is a highly personalized sport. We each tend to identify elements that excite us, be it the otherworldly agility of a sparrowhawk, the wraith-like stoops of a peregrine or the supremely reckless crashes of a red-tail, to cultivate and refine. For me, falconry is flying golden eagles on open moorland after the enigmatic mountain hare. It continually causes me that ache in my bones and wonderful knots in my stomach. Whether from the fist or waiting-on, whether the hare flushes from your feet or is first spotted loping hundreds of yards away in the far distance, flying eagles in that windswept and beautiful place is endlessly variable. I could be confined to those hills for a lifetime, and the flights would never loose their surprise and magic. After a year of doing such things in Scotland, I now make an annual pilgrimage to the moors to continue this facet of falconry that I’ve come to love over all else.

In January, I found myself knee-deep in heather, with a hooded eagle atop my fist. It was my slip. Below walked another falconer with a male golden eagle. Further down in the valley was another friend and his enthused sprocker, which was excitedly darting amidst the heather in search of hares. The wind howled. For the time being the sun was aloft in a blue sky. Ominous clouds rolled on the horizon. As I pushed higher on the hill, to gain a sufficient height advantage in the dramatic terrain, I reached a monument. On the crest of this particular hill was a stone marking the death of a young Australian pilot. Atop a cracked stone stood a simple marker engraved with a cross. Twisted metal littered the heather around the stone. Larger pieces, clearly recognizable as aircraft parts, lay at its base. We had passed this stone many times, but I was suddenly strongly reminded of the nameless graves in western Mongolia; clay-colored rocks piled high on the utterly flat steppe. This Royal Australian Air Force pilot had been hardly older than me. Anthony Dominica Cyril La Gruta was but 23 years old when his aircraft plummeted into the ground. It gave me pause as I stopped and watched the ground below for hares.

According the Air Crash Sites Scotland website:

On 29 August 1941, the pilot, Flt Sgt A.D.C. La Gruta, was sent out to conduct a series of 'homing tests' in a Defiant aircraft. It is thought he lost control of the aircraft whilst flying in cloud. The exact reason he lost control remains unclear. The aircraft struck the ground at high speed in a very steep dive. The bulk of the aircraft ended up buried nearly 5m (16ft) underground. The MoD decided the aircraft and pilot could not be recovered.

This day I was tense, like a coiled spring in anticipation of the slip. The eagle shifted in wind, shaking his tail and rubbing his hooded head against the sun-bleached feathers of his shoulder. I recalled a female eagle, with an eagleowl plume on her back and a braceless hood, shifting similarly as a Kazakh friend explained the purpose of the gravesites to me in the empty Bayan-Olgii province. In a place of extremes, where there is either mountain or steppe, any man-made structure was eminently noticeable. The memorials were nameless, but powerful in their antiquity and isolation. It was a curious thought, that these long-dead soldiers, left in lonely lands, were now visited only by such peculiar people as eagle falconers.

Soon that flash of white fur appeared, cascading across the hillside, stark against the thick red heather. I removed the hood; immediately the eagle pushed off the glove in pursuit. With the wind at his back, a downhill course and deep rowing wingbeats, he soon attained fantastic speed. The hare made a wide turn, with the intention of heading uphill. The golden eagle banked around, still pumping hard. A hundred yards passed in what felt like the span of a few blinks. As he closed in the eagle tucked back his wings and quickly folded. Eagle and hare collided, tumbling end over end before coming to a rest. I sprinted downhill to his side, exhausted far too soon and smiling far too big. My friend with the sprocker, to whom this eagle belonged, came walking over. We crowded round as the eagle was fed the vitals and the hare tucked away in a bag around my shoulder. The eagle was soon hooded and back atop my fist. He bent to feak on my arm. It was now the other eagle falconer’s turn. Grey clouds had begun to encroach and the occasional snowflake hurled down. I was both contended and electrically alive. Those simple memorials may only be seen by quiet hunters, but they certainly give one pause.