Saturday, November 19, 2011

One cool gun

From Chad Love at Field and Stream comes a fantastic story about a 1941 Spitfire crash, the Irish bog the wreckage sat in for 70 years, and the Browning machine gun that, when recovered, worked flawlessly. Check it out. 

Supermarine Spitfire. Photo from Wikipedia 

On the Scottish moor where we fly the eagles there is also a 1941 aircrash site, this time a Defiant. I wrote about it here. In this case the pilot did not survive and the bulk of the plane was forced several meters underground when it smashed into the hillside. But there are large pieces of wreckage scattered about - weathering the snow, rain and storm of the moor for 70 years. If one could do a decades-long time-lapse video of the site, you would see the sun rise and set over twenty five thousand times, but only the occasional gamekeeper minding the land, the handful of grouse shooters in the fall, and a few falconers in the winter giving pause to consider the history of that small patch of hill. 

Last year, I spent snowy November afternoons chasing rabbits with a red-tail around a former WWII training camp. It was surreal. The buildings still bore the marks of their war-era use. I wonder if some hawk-obsessed recruit chased blackbirds with a sparrowhawk or rabbits with a goshawk around those same mess halls and those same billets.

The force of history is everywhere.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Many of the older falconers that I admire got their start with kestrels. Kestrels and sparrowhawks. It was typically after finding a forgotten falconry book in a library, seeing the film Kes, or discovering My Side of the Mountain. In Frances Hamerstrom's memoir, she recalls her 10 or 12 year old self stalking the woods with a kestrel and pocketing falcon-caught starlings.

But who says you have to start with a kestrel? Seeing children with eagles always made me double-take in Mongolia.

A 14 year old and his first eagle - we did some lure work with the eagles before the Festival
A young berkutchi at the Festival
Another young berkutchi. Photo by Nurbol Khajikhan.
When my eagle sustained a fox bite, concerned local children came to get a better look
 That is not to say they disregard risk. Just before Kukan handed me my freshly-trapped eagle to start training, he hesitated. "Remember Lauren" he said. "An eagle can stop a wolf. A wolf can stop a horse. A horse can stop you. Therefore, an eagle can stop you. Be careful."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mongolia's Resource Curse

This video comes from The Guardian, via Axel at Birding Mongolia.

When I did make it to the cities, I was surprised by the sheer number of people connected with the mining industry at the ex-pat haunts. There is no escaping its influence.

The Gobi is one of those places that is spectacular in its desolation. I spent some time on the fringe of the desert at the Ikh Nart nature reserve, but also went to visit the camel herders in the deep desert. While I enjoyed riding horses, there is something that I found delightful about riding Bactrian camels. A mighty sandstorm kicked up a few days when I was there - battering the gers and leaving the sky in a red haze. The Flaming Cliffs, of Roy Chapman Andrews fame, transported me to the Red Planet. The endless dunes took me to Arrakis (trying to run without a rhythm in sand is hard!). Very different from the Altai where I made my home.

Woman on camelback pausing before going to retrieve the grazing camels
Bactrian camels in the corral
The wind shifting the dunes
A camel skeleton in the sand
 On another note, I heard yesterday that the Peace Corps is pulling out of Kazakhstan. There is no offical statement yet, but the volunteers on the ground confirm it. Celia over at the Dumpling Cart has more. It is terribly unfortunate. The friendship and support of Peace Corps volunteers made all the difference to me in Mongolia. It will be shame to not have that network when I head to Kazakhstan next fall. While I suspect it is from a myriad of underlying issues, there have also been a string of strange terror incidents in Kazakhstan. I'm bewildered more than anything.

Update: While on the subject of Peace Corps volunteers, here is an excellent article by a former volunteer on failure. I can identify with what she says, and can see her experiences reflected in the experiences of my Peace Corps friends in Bayan-Olgii.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hawking in Hungary

Abby Duvall, a falconer of Cornell who is currently working at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, traveled to Hungary this past weekend to attend a meet and join up with my friend Dániel, a Hungarian falconer who is enjoying good success with his female golden eagle. I've been hawking in several European countries, but never Hungary. Abby is also a talented photographer and, clearly, she had a ball.

Eagle in pursuit of a roebuck . Photo by Abby Duvall
Young eagle and brown hare. Photo by Abby Duvall
A miss! Photo by Abby Duvall
Three happy falconers! Abby with Attila (left) and Dániel (center)
Handshakes all around - Dániel's female did well to catch the fox, it was a difficult slip!
Photo by Abby Duvall
Late night ceremony - with 19 hares, 17 pheasants and 1 fox, many of the hawks, falcons and eagles were successful. Photo by Abby Duvall
Typical eagle-on-kill pose. Photo by Abby Duvall
Thanks for the photos, Abby! If you have a hard time picturing what a roe flight in action may look like, this video (from December hawking in Austria) is one of my favorites:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pale Blue Dot

Check out this enchanting video of the earth at night, a time-lapse video captured from the International Space Station. The aurora flung high in the thermosphere, the illuminated veins of civilization, the vast swaths of darkness, the commonplace flickering of thunderstorms - how utterly humbling and lovely.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

When I was in the Altai mountains, far from any village or city, I took great comfort in the night time sky. No matter how lonely or stressed I may have been, there was always the Milky Way, Orion, Ursa Major and Minor, Venus and Mars. No matter how alien my surroundings, the patterns in the sky that I learned as a child remained the same. Without any light pollution, Mongolian nights were ethereal. Mars was a unmistakable red orb. The Milky Way was so prominent, so clearly a river of our galaxy's stars across the sky, so moving - that it seemed the only thing worthy of lending a name to my newly-trapped eagle. She was "Alema"- based on the Kazakh translation of the Milky Way, literally, "the sky's road".

The video above can only make me think of this one. If you have a spare minute, do watch it. If the view from the space station is humbling, take a few steps further back. Look at the pale blue dot. "That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you've ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives." Nobody could say it like Carl.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Falconry on the Isle of Arran, part deux

In 2006 I attended a falconry meet on the Isle of Arran. In September, it is a stunningly beautiful place. All 167 square miles of it. In the fall of 2010, I was lucky enough to return. I didn't fly a bird, but was a beater for those with hawks and eagles in hand looking for brown hares. Our hosts, Ian and Murray, never fail to show us a good time. There was plentiful quarry in the field and lots of venison, whiskey and laughs in the pub.

The weather was perfect. Idyllic.

We lined up to walk the fields and flush brown hares.

Photo by Adrian Struthers
There were several good flights, the hares bursting at our feet and the hawks all business off the fist.

Photo by Adrian Struthers

Topaz, a male golden eagle x ornate hawk-eagle hybrid, took a few hares in fine style. This one involved a lovely pitch-up and wing over. He can turn on a dime.

Andrew, Topaz, and brown hare
The most enthusiastic member of the group, Mirran spent long hours trumping across the fields, flushing hares, and aiding the falconers in all ways. A future falconer, if we are lucky.

Photo by Adrian Struthers

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eagles and Dogs

I was sifting through old files in my computer and came across this photo. I love it. It is of Roy Lupton's male golden eagle, who I would hazard a guess is in his fourteenth season, and several dogs in Scotland, loading up after a day on the moor.

Eagles can pick up on the usefulness and role of working dogs in the field as quickly as any other falconry bird. Waiting-on one can typically see the eagle's head cocked downward, watching the dog more closely than the falconer. When hawking blue hares in Scotland, a dog with a good nose is essential. Even without snow, the white-coated hares can disappear completely into thick heather. Although a young eagle, if not presented with adequate slips, may grab a dog in frustration, with time they can become a well-oiled machine. It is a pleasure to watch them take eachother's cues.

One of my favorite flights involved a golden eagle waiting-on at about 500 feet and a German wirehared pointer on solid point. When the eagle came into position, the hare was flushed and the eagle folded. Right overhead I heard the wind scream through his feathers. It was a beautiful stoop that ended with him reaching out and, seemingly effortlessly, grabbing the hare.

Not only are dogs useful in flushing the quarry, but in places like the American west, they can be used to keep hares moving through the thick sage. Then you have the sighthounds. There is a fascinating relationship between eagles and the tazis and taigans of Central Asia. That is another post to come. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Red Arrows

I live near an air force base. Even though I'm in a rural area, I often hear military jets overhead. Having grown up on air bases, I rather enjoy the added noise. A few months ago, the air base hosted an air show. I think I'll always be a sucker for air shows. They are so damn cool.

The Red Arrows
The Red Arrows
The Patrouille de France
The loudest jet I've ever heard: The Vulcan
 The Vulcan in particular was a treat, as it is the last airworthy Vulcan in existence. When the Red Arrows performed, although spectacular, it was on a somber note. One of their own had died in a crash not a month earlier; Flt Lt Jon Egging. They flew in the "missing man" formation and throughout the day, there were only eight Red Arrows instead of the usual nine. I was surprised and saddened to see that another Red Arrow pilot, Flt Lt Sean Cunningham, has died due to an extremely rare and unusual ejector seat malfunction. It is hard to think what could have happened, as ejector seats are "pinned" until just before the pilot is ready to taxi (so they don't accidentally activate while the pilot is getting situated and strapped in). My thoughts go out to the families.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fire and Ice

We've all been cold before. Sometimes, especially on a blue sky, crisp day, it's invigorating. Recently I was thinking about what it is like to be really cold. Mind-numbingly, bone-chillingly cold. So cold, that you can't think straight, can't concentrate, can't hold a thought in your head. I can acutely remember this feeling from Mongolia. In January and February, the temperatures plummet. Those months make November and December seem like pleasantly cool months. I know for sure that, during the day, it was as cold as -35 degrees Celsius. It is not so bad if you walking or running, but siting on a horse the pain soon starts to creep in. It starts in my feet. There is minimal movement in your feet when riding horses at slow paces up mountainsides. I loose feeling in my toes until my foot feels like one pained brick. Then I feel it in my left hand. To have the dexterity to continually operate reigns, jesses, leads, and handle meat - you sacrifice the warmth of a mit. If I've had to retrieve my eagle from deep snow, sometimes the snow creeps into the layers of my clothing, like sand. Then my head starts to throb. When the wind batters you from your vantage point on top of the mountain, even with several layers of insulating head protection and a fox fur hat, the cold can seep in. I can only think to call it "cold headaches". This doesn't affect me every time I head for the mountains in the new year, but sometimes. Especially if I've been chasing foxes all day, and I suddenly find myself under the mountain's lengthening shadows or watching the sun sink beneath the horizon. This pained state of cold can surprise you.

I remember sitting on top of a mountain, white all around me, hooded eagle in hand. It was one of those days. The sun had gone and I was utterly cold. Frigid. I sat still for twenty minutes on the mountaintop while the valley below was worked, waiting for a potential slip. It was twenty minutes of squinting into white nothingness and feeling nothing. Waiting for the slip isn't a relaxed state. You must be primed for action. Ready to spring into life at a moment's notice - to send the eagle on its way, in an advantageous manner, and gallop to its assistance. Keeping my body and mind coiled in the cold nothingness is exhausting.  

Then, like a warm flame - the fox appears and runs. He is the only sign of life in the barren snowscape and his electricity is contagious. Almost immediately, I shed the layer of suffocating cold. The surge of adrenaline, the quick, powerful wingbeats of the eagle, and the artful dodging of the fox spur me on. I speed on my horse through the snow with sudden concentration, and yet I'm also up there with the eagle. 

I can tell you that in this picture, I wasn't cold in the slightest. I only remember being happy. It's the power of falconry. The power of doing something that you love.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Glasgow Queenstreet to Edinburgh Waverley

Edinburgh in winter
Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening than Edinburgh? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed. I hadn't been to Edinburgh for years and had forgotten just how captivating it can be. Every momument was lit with golden floodlights - the castle and the Bank of Scotland headquarters on the hill, the Balmoral Hotel and the Sir Walter Scott Monument down below - which gave them a certain eerie grandeur.
    -- Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island, pg 56

Perfect winter lunch; Bovril and venison roll

On this dark Novembery evening, I could not agree more. What makes it even more wonderful, is when you head from that dark, gritty, seductive city to the top of a moor. They are two extremes in an impossibly short distance. I learned to fly eagles by taking the train to Edinburgh Waverley, meeting my friends Neil and John Hunter at the station entrance, and then driving to a nearby moor to fly the eagles. We'd spend the day chasing hares, and then I'd descend back into Waverley station and be home in Glasgow by evening.

Those were happy days.
Eagle on hare; describing the flight

Update: I've just seen this beautiful short piece by Rachel Dickinson on living in Edinburgh. As someone who ran away to Glasgow at 19 without knowing a soul, I found her writing moving. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Miles to go

It's fall. The woods on the road home have suddenly changed color, and it is beautiful. I've seen, among many other things, foxes, roe deer, red squirrels, buzzards, spars, and possibly (perhaps it is me being wishful) a goshawk while traveling this road. It's long and winding, and our daylight hours are shrinking. Soon it'll be snowing. Sometimes I jog it. When I do, I always think of the poem by Robert Frost:                    

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Were it not for the chase...

Ah, it feels good to be back. So, what's a few years in the world of blogging? A lot has happened since my last post. There were foxes in Mongolia, hares in Scotland and deer in Slovakia. There were brilliant days in the field, with happy eagles and victory drams, and there were challenging days, with bruised egos and a few tears.  I made new friendships, strengthened old friendships, and fell out of touch with a few dear friends.

As I've long said, I'm working on a book about my experience living as a 'berkutchi'. What an easy thing that is to say! That phrase says nothing about the intensely emotional and personal process of putting pen to paper. Writing about one's own experiences is incredibly enlightening and addictive, but painful, and sometimes, the self-discovery makes me uneasy.

This will be a book on running away to the wilds of Mongolia. About living as a Kazakh nomad. A nomad whose only cares are the wild eagle she flies, the loyal horse she rides, the clever foxes she chases, and her comrades-in-arms. Living that life, I've never felt so free, so accomplished.

So here I am to put this into practice. No more excuses. Rebecca O'Connor's wonderful post on falconry, writing, and her dreams coming full circle has spurred me into action, particularly this link to Jim Butcher's advice to aspiring authors (a post in which I rather uncomfortably recognize myself). Well, dammit, I'm not going to kill this dream! This book is getting finished.

This blog is to keep me honest. A place for my thoughts to coalesce and, when the words won't come, a place to write on familiar topics for a like-minded community.  

While rooting around the library for old sources on falconry and coursing, I stumbled across this stunningly perfect quote:

"Were it not for the chase, there would be no pleasure."

(Which, I've learned, is appropriately written on the cover of the tome "Saluqi: Coursing Hound of the East".) It sums it up nicely. Whether in the immediacy of an eagle's flight, or running down a dream, there is indeed something about the chase. Now it is well underway!

Finally, Happy Carl Sagan Day! It's his birthday - he would have been 77 today. Here he is, famously explaining how to make an apple pie from scratch.