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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Urban Merlin

I'm in an ornithology class at the moment. I've taken and TA'ed a "Bird Ecology" course, but that was down at the university's Biological Station and only lasted the better part of two weeks. This new, semester-long course is proving to be good fun. As expected (and one would hope), we're often out in the field looking for birds.

I missed an excursion last week. I did have an excuse - I was watching a presentation on monitoring Peregrine populations in Scotland, but the next day I arrived in class to find everyone chatting enthusiastically about an unusual sighting.

Amidst the bustle of the enclosed city of Norman, the class had spied a Merlin. In a newly built neighborhood edition, there he was on a lone, gnarled and bare tree. Placid and accommodating, perhaps preoccupied with scanning the field that stretched out in front, the Merlin allowed a gaggle of college students get close.

A herpetology student in our class, Sam Martin, took these fine photos. I was delighted to see them; there is something special about Merlins. He also spotted the Eastern Bluebird pictured above and this Lesser Yellowlegs below. The latter was methodically working around the pond edge after a flock of Green-winged Teal had fled.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Eagles in Central Europe

There is no shortage of junk of Youtube, but I stumbled across a worthwhile video today.

Here's a short video of golden eagles being flown on brown hare and roe deer in central Europe. It is quite good; the creator also made a brief video (that has already made the Internet rounds) of a well known "Christmas Meet" in Austria, where eagles were being flown in casts after roe through a snow-laden landscape.

There is also a goshawk hidden in there - which looks positively tiny in comparison. Many of these areas are devoid of rabbits, and even small goshawks become very proficient at taking brown hares. I particularly enjoy the final flight in the video, where an eagle overhauls a roe but just can't work her way up the head before being kicked off.

The video hints at the herds of roe that one can find in open fields in Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In many places the deer are considered pests, they are so numerous. The first roe I ever saw genuinely startled me. I was walking through chest-high, somewhat thick, rapeseed in Czech when I noticed something big shift in from of me. All of the sudden a lanky form sprang upwards and galloped out into the open. It was rather like flushing a pheasant at your feet - a characteristic explosion of movement that I had not anticipated at all.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Building Confidence

“Don’t worry, Lauren. I’ll keep you right.” But I was worried. Neil and I rumbled up the winding path to an isolated patch of moorland, which we had dubbed ‘Hare City’. I stepped out of the truck and surveyed the landscape while Neil readied the eagles. The patchwork hills rolled into a clouded horizon. A low grey sky hung overhead and the air was filled with a thick, cold moisture. Bisto, the grizzled old wirehair pointer, carefully leapt from the truck and looked up at us expectantly. I pulled on my glove and Neil handed me a male eagle named Purdey.

Although I had handled and even slipped eagles in other countries, this was different. This was the first time I had flown a golden eagle; I wanted to do it right. The second eagle was left in the truck, so we could focus on the task at hand. I was surprised and delighted that Neil’s willingness to help me learn included flying his brother’s eagle. At the time, I hadn’t yet come to understand the very hands-on and trustworthy relationships between groups of eagle falconers and their eagles in Europe. Quite typically, the mark of a good eagle is that it can be flown and handled by anyone.

Setting off, my stomach was twisted in impossible knots. When we had taken precisely two steps into the heather, a white-coated blue hare sprung from our feet. I removed the hood and Purdey sailed off my fist, wide wings churning nosily in the heavy air. The eagle closed the gap, pitched up twenty feet, quickly glanced down over his shoulder, compacted his wings and collided with the hare not fifty yards from where we had began. Oh, I thought to myself, I can do this! With that the tension dissipated. I giddily sprang through the heather to the eagle, shedding my insecurities and feeling no different than when a hawk or falcon of mine had had a successful flight.

I was too excited to have reservations and immediately jumped in amid the entangled eagle and hare. “Good flight, eh? Here Lauren, like this.” I leaned over and Neil opened the chest cavity, “Now give him the heart and lungs.” I laughed as Purdey greedily ate the vitals from my fingers.

Over the next hour and half Purdey put in great effort, but did not manage to connect. The wind was blowing down, over the hills, giving the eagle great speed but little control. The flights were dramatic in this difficult wind; swift angles downward and short powerful stoops. At one point I was too focused on the dog and the next hare, that I stepped right into a thinly covered hole in the hillside. I disappeared; all anyone could see was the tips of eagle wings waving wildly above clumps of heather.

At last Bisto flushed a distant hare into a sheltered bowl. Purdey was off. These eagles aren't flown with bells. I must admit, I love the sound of an eagle lumbering into flight, of their thick, dark feathers forced through the air. After the eagle had pushed out a hundred yards and gained some small height, I saw his wings fold and his form drop with calculated intent. I was not sure of the outcome - they were so far off - but Neil was nearby and gave me the thumbs up as I bounded over.

I like this photo. There is nothing particularly striking about it, but it is what I saw as I reveled in the moment. I was tired, catching my breath in the frigid air, sitting aside Purdey as he finished his day’s ration on the ground. Importantly with captive-bred eagles, large quantities of food are never fed on the fist. Neil was there, checking the telemetry, and the flat heather stretched out in front of me. After the eagle delicately picked the last few morsels from between his talons, he gingerly stepped back up to my glove and bent to feak his lovely beak on my arm. Once hooded, he roused thoroughly.

We walked back to truck to fly the second eagle, this time waiting-on.

For me, that day set the foundation for countless other such enjoyable days on the hill. That's when I started to fit the pieces together. The world needs more teachers like this.