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October 1, 2009


Dear Okiehawkers,


I'm in the westernmost corner of Mongolia at the moment. Went out for the first time this season today (the 1st) after hares around the city of Olgii (urban hawking - Mongolia style). I was surprised how much they look akin to Black-tailed jacks. A local falconer lent me his eagle to fly for the day (a four year old, mild-mannered imprint) - which incidentally it is great fun flying on these stout little horses. We negotiated some really steep mountain faces and slippery mountainsides - I forgot just how sheer those were and I was, at times, clutching the horn of the saddle in fear. The hares bolt uphill and into the rocks the second they get a chance, so we didn't manage to set-up a decent flight today, but did do some long-range lure work. I think my favorite thing so far has been galloping across the steppe, dragging a fox lure, and shouting some odd guttural Kazakh word as the eagle comes in to take the lure. We should really do that in Oklahoma. I'm told tomorrow morning there will be five eagle falconers stopping by my place, to pick me up to spend the day hunting in the cities' surrounding mountains. I'm a bit nervous flying tomorrow as I won't have a translator this time and I can only hope slipping order and field-craft will be intuitive. Although imprints are sometimes flown in casts, so...maybe I'll have a good story for you tomorrow! This weekend is the "Eagle Festival" as well. I attached two pictures; one is this ramshackle Russian bus that I took 1600km from the capital of the country to Olgii. We had two drivers who alternated during the 63 hour drive. Crazy. Next time I'm opting for the plane! Good hawking!!

--Lauren






October 3, 2009


Yesterday, the eagle falconers did indeed come knocking on my door and four of us rode far into the mountains. One of them was a boy that couldn't have been more than 15. We rode for about an hour and a half outside Olgii, wading through a river and galloping across a stretch of steppe to reach the place we were after. I'm really amazed the eagles ride as well as they do on horseback - I think it must be more energy-draining than bouncing around in a car. After a few hours going from mountaintop to mountaintop, a large yellow-orange fox bolted into a valley about a 1/2 mile distant and into the open. I needn't have worried about slipping order - all of us slipped our eagles at once! The first one off was a six-year old experienced bird - she pumped hard the entire distance, gaining real speed downhill in the dead air. She bowled the fox over - they tumbled together for an instant and then the fox was loose and managed to find safety in a wall of boulders. The other eagles didn't make it there in time. Lest this sounds terribly unsporting casting off four eagles at a single fox - my impression is that this is a rare occurrence. The vast majority of the time, one flies one's eagle alone, near where your family's wintering ground is. Old friends are meeting up in Olgii for the Festival, and are taking the opportunity to hunt together. Also, getting a proper slip is mighty hard work - with four eagles it isn't realistic to get that many good slips in a day, in most places. So - you might as well fly 'em all - especially considering what a fox or wolf pelt means financially. It is quite similar to casts of eagles being flown at roe deer in Austria. There is a good Youtube video of that entitled "Falconry
with Eagles 2007" I think.

--Lauren






November 28, 2009

Dear Okiehawkers -


I've heard bits and pieces about the NAFA meet, and it sounds like a real success - good hawking of all sorts. I certainly wish I could have been there, Thanksgiving doesn't feel quite right without lots of
falconry friends and hawk talk. I had a small Thanksgiving here in Olgii - there are four other Americans living in the city, Peace Corps volunteers, and thanks to care packages we were able to do a Thanksgiving dinner that wasn't too bad!

Anyway - I wanted to tell you all about the first and second foxes that I caught with my passage eagle (I use the term 'passage' loosely)! Near the end of October, after a harrowing twelve days in the wilderness searching for young eagles, we managed to trap a Turnik - a second year female golden eagle. She was in great feather, had molted very well over the preceding summer, and had feet and cere that were brilliant yellow. I was astounded at how fast training progressed, and on November 20th and 23rd, she made her first kills. On the kill eagles are fed the tongue of the fox and then traded for a hare's leg - never more.


Out here they use make-eagles, a system that I think works well in Mongolia. The slips are often so distant, the flights so big, that it helps focus a new eagle on that object scooting along the horizon, and what the game is, when another eagle is pumping hard after it. There hasn't been any crabbing at all - the first eagle grabs the head and then the second takes the body. Interestingly, when my eagle was first flown with the make eagle, she would mirror the other eagle's movements, pitching up high and coming crashing down. Three foxes were taken in this manner (my eagle always coming in second) before we flew her alone. Now that she's flying on her own she's developing her own style. At first she had some close calls - knocking the stuffing out a fox but losing it, and rolling another but unable to get a secure hold before it too broke loose.


Her first kill happened like this: The fox was running in a straight line maybe two hundred yards off. She left the glove (we had a bit of height, maybe 50ft off the ground, not much) and tried for a straight-grab. The fox dodged to the side at the last second but she didn't hit the ground and was able get back her speed and try again. This repeated itself and then the fox ran around a gigantic stone that was on the ground. It was an oddly placed stone on the steppe, and was maybe thirty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. At this point my eagle pitched upward, looked down over her shoulder as the fox circled, and then dove and collided with the fox as it made it around the stone. It was particularly fun because this land was fairly flat, so it was easy for me to spur my horse to a gallop and race over there. I felt really intrepid! Usually its steep hillsides and I'm just plodding along downhill to try and reach the eagle.


The second kill was the opposite - we were on a precarious mountainside named "difficult stones". The eagle jerked like it saw something so I released her (I prefer out of the hood, but you get many more flights if you don't) - she flew quite far, pumping and serious, out of sight to another side of the mountain. We chased and found her halfway the mountainside down on a fox. It was incredibly steep though, and not real ground - all loose stones and sand. I was terrified! I had to get off my horse and walk it down - I fell several times and was exhausted by the time I reached my eagle. She had killed the fox by then and so I quickly traded. I wish I'd seen the flight, though!

After the first kill, my eagle hunting family slaughtered a sheep, broke out the vodka, and invited all the neighbors over for dinner to celebrate. Additionally, it’s been a great year for fox in this region, south of Olgii near the Chinese border - total I've seen eleven fox brought to bag. There are pages to write about how big some of these flights are and how incredible the tricks of both eagle and fox can be. It’s a whole different world out here!

Looking forward to hawking with you all again!


--Lauren





December 27, 2009



Hello Okiehawkers!

I just made it back to civilization - and wanted to share some thoughts and stories with you. I posted almost the same e-mail to the IEAA listserv - so I'm sorry for the repetition. Thank you all for the kind words following my last update! I really appreciate that.

Tim, you asked me what the Kazakhs think of me as a hunter. I can honestly say, that I've not had one discouraging comment about me flying eagles here (and I have very honest translators!). Many times, I've heard them say something like, "Look, here's a girl from America flying eagles, when even our own sons won't take up the sport anymore!" I've had eagle hunters give me the thumbs up when I pass with an eagle, or shake my hand when I return with a fox on my saddle. They are only nominal Muslims, and similarly, I think they only nominally care about traditional roles for women.

Mitch - my eagle was trapped in mid-October (funnily enough, I'm not sure of the exact day, my notes are a blur and not with me), was flown free on November 9th, and took her first fox on November 20th.


Since then, Alema has taken a total of six foxes and in all; I've seen 22 foxes caught by eagles this winter. Alema is Kazakh for "Milky Way", which I chose as the Milky Way is almost always prominent and arresting in the Mongolian night sky.

The way we fly is, of course, off horseback. This
falconry would not be feasible in any regard without horses. The eagle hunters take the high road - we go from mountaintop to mountaintop. Most often, we have a "scare boy", someone who takes the low road, lags behind us about a quarter of a mile, and loudly rides their horse in order to flush foxes our way. These foxes are somewhat diurnal and it doesn't take much to get them running. But it is very rare that we get a close slip - our slips are far and the flights big. Very often, the fox is just a small rust-colored spot scooting along in the distance. The effect is almost like waiting-on flying, because the eagles cover such vast distances and can stoop hundreds of feet into a valley below. The style my eagle has developed is to power out over the fox, keeping her height. She'll even fly past the fox, then angle down, and finally teardrop stoop to the bottom. It makes for some really exciting flying. These foxes are every bit as wily as the hares at home, too. They sidestep, freeze, turn circles, and run in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Another common flight style is for the eagle is to skim the hillside, pumping hard, then using the momentum to pitch up fifty or sixty feet at the last moment before winging over onto the fox. I have to tell you guys about one flight we had - I could not believe it - I only wish I had been able to film it. We had a fox running DOWN a mountainside, which almost never happens. Just like hares, foxes know they've got the best chance of survival if they head up at high speed. Anyway, this fox was running down, and the eagle, Ana (Kazakh for a four-year old eagle), was pumping hard after it, gaining some real speed. They collided right at the edge of a cliff, and with all that momentum, the eagle FLEW with the adult fox in her talons. She didn't glide at all. At first I thought she had missed and was continuing on to give it another shot, but then I spied a writhing fox in her talons! She flew across a narrow valley and then hit another mountainside where we were able to reach her. The lifelong eagle hunters that I was with had never seen anything like it - nor had I.


One of my favorite flights I've had occurred at the end of the day. The eagle hunter whom I am apprenticing under, Kukan, had taken a fox with his eagle, but mine had come up empty, and hadn't flown that well that day in general. I was a bit discouraged, was aware of how tired I was, and wasn't so enthusiastic about the rest of the day. I was sitting on top of a snow covered grassy hill - it was the highest point around, but the terrain wasn't so dramatic and there was a gradual decline in the hills into the distance. I had the hood off and Kukan was attempting to flush foxes from our position, which isn't the most effective way to do it, but we were alone. My eagle suddenly sat up straight, bobbed her head, and bolted from the fist. Immediately after, I saw the fox - it was a rather grey colored individual and was cutting a path across our field of vision along the farther hills. It was on the edge of my sight in the fading light. She powered out there, kept her modest height, and flew past the fox quite a way. I was puzzled - was there another fox out there that she was going for instead? Then she circled back towards us. The fox, meanwhile, had froze, and then began running the opposite direction. When she wheeled in the air back away from us, the fox switched directions again. She seemed satisfied with his direction that time, and suddenly flipped over and slammed into the hillside - taking the fox. I felt elated! After I slip an eagle, I feel really awkward on the horse, like this big counterweight I have is suddenly gone. I was light as air that time though, and was shouting and whooping and pushing my horse to a gallop - but it still took me a good 10 or 20 minutes (it's hard for me to tell time in the heat of the moment) to arrive. By the time I did the fox was dead and Alema had broken in and was devouring the vitals. Against the snow it was quite a scene.


Later that night, while having tea with several eagle hunters, they told me how passage eagles will often wheel in the air over a fox to confuse it, or force it into choosing a new path, before they commit themselves.

I'll attach some photos from my last hunting stint.


--- 001 and 002 are Alema's third fox
--- 003 is our hunting group, ready to head home after watering the horses
--- 004 is my eagle on a Pallas' cat, a dangerous creature that looks like a snow leopard in miniature. We didn't fly it intentionally. We were flying our eagles in a cast, and the eagle that had actually caught it had just been traded off when I took the photo.
--- 005 the end of the day, my eagle took the fox on the right
--- 006 tea after hunting
--- 007 the "flying fox" - the scene after Ana (Kukan's eagle) hit the mountainside and was traded off.
--- 008 Alema on her sixth fox, in a very tight spot.
--- 009 the end of a good day, my eagle took the fox on the right

I've had lots of questions about the "gloves" on the eagles. They are called "iyakcap" or "legcaps" and are sometimes used as protection from very cold temperatures, but primarily as protection from bites. They are really ingenious - I didn't use them until my eagle got a bad bite - then one of the eagle hunter’s daughters helped me sew a pair. Most eagle hunters in my area near the Chinese border use them - but I'd never seen them before. I don't think they impact an eagle's success rate, either - they're made so the talons are completely exposed - and we've caught just as many foxes as when we didn't use them.


Another thing I am often asked about is the cold. We've had some absolutely frigid days where the hoods would actually freeze to the eagle's heads. Frost would develop around the beak opening from their exhalations. By the end of those days, the eagle's ceres and feet are orange colored, obviously cold. If we end up riding back as the sun is setting, or after sunset, when temperatures really plummet, our birds tuck a head beneath their wing even if we're cantering along at fast speeds. I'm not sure what the actual temps are, but I know it has gotten to -35 degree C at night in Olgii.

There are also, of course, no telemetry or scales out here - when things go awry you have to rely on your eyes and your horse. It can be nerve wracking. A few times I've thought to myself, "This is it, I've lost my eagle", then I notice a strangely shaped silhouette on the mountainside and breathe a sigh a relief as I call her back. I can honestly say I now know EXACTLY what Frederick the II meant when he said "A fat hawk maketh a lean horse, a weary falconer, and an empty purse."!

Although for those interested, one of the eagle hunter’s daughters found a scale for me. She borrowed it from a relative and we only used it once, but at fly weight it said my eagle was 4.8 kilos or 10.58 lbs.

--Lauren


December 28, 2009

*update*

One thing I am bitterly regretting, is not bringing a Bird Guide, or just an animal guide in general. I'd never seen an animal like the cat before. Briefly looking on the Internet, it looks to be a Pallas' cat or, as Steve called it, an Asian wild cat.


I know of six that have been caught in the area where I hunt - none intentionally. Each time the eagle spied something in the distance and the falconer slipped the bird, not knowing what to expect. I've never seen one "flushed" or running. This cat was no different. It was the end of the day and we were working out way back to the road home. Kukan and I both had the hoods off our eagles as we were riding, just in case something flushed (we didn't really expect it). Suddenly both birds turned their heads in interest at something behind us, stretched their necks, and we slipped them. Sometimes we fly in a cast and sometimes we don't (that's a whole different post, right there). This time we did. My eagle took the high road, as she often does, powering out for an eventual stoop, and Kukan's eagle took the low road, skimming the mountainside. Ana, his eagle, got there first. She bound to something, I couldn't see what it was - my eagle sort of half-stooped down (you know how birds do when their target is no longer, or not, running) and hit the object. They were tussling on the ground an awful lot - I wasn't sure what was going on. When I got there one eagle was on the head, the other on the chest, and the cat had its legs stretched out in all directions. We dispatched it and traded the eagles.

The cat's tails are really lovely - super woolly and ringed - thick black and grey alternating rings to the tail's rounded bottom. We gave it to our scare boy, who skinned it and hung the skin on a wall in his house.

Oh - interestingly - we found a freshly-dead marmot about ten yards from where the eagles took the cat. I'd bet the cat had either been carrying the marmot, or just caught it, when we slipped our eagles!

--Lauren





February 22, 2010


Hello all,

Hope hawking has gone well for everyone. I've returned from another long trip in the Mongolian wilds, and thought I'd share a bit. Its been tough this winter. Mongolia is experiencing a "zud" or famine among the livestock. Bitterly cold weather and snowstorm after snowstorm as led to, so far, a third of the country's 43 million head of livestock dying. Here is an article from January, just when things began to get rough:


http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100125/ap_on_re_as/as_mongolia_un_extreme_weather

I've had confirmation from World Vision that it has reached -50 C where I have been hawking at night, and -30 C during the day. I am astounded at the cold - it makes November and December seem like a cake walk.


But that all aside, the hawking has been good. The eagles seem to relish the weather and the foxes are being found. Though it is difficult to ride horses through drifts of snow on the mountainside, we do find very fresh and telling fox tracks that often lead to a flight.


I've had particular fun this trip. Alema's footing seems to have improved - whereas in November and December she often would get her feet on a fox that would break loose, that almost never happened in January and February. We hawked a Siberian-esque winterscape. I frequently thought of the arctic when out hawking. (Photo 0887) I feel lucky in the number of sheer vertical stoops we've had - it really is like waiting-on flying. The eagles power out from the mountaintop, high above a valley where the fox is, then choose their moment and plummet.


Myself, I've changed leaps and bounds on horseback. I came to Mongolia with virtually no horse sense or experience, and little confidence. Its very rough and tumble riding, but boy is it thrilling. Imagine, after your eagle collides with a distant fox, jumping on your horse and whipping it into a gallop across the steppe. The wind in your face, speeding to assist your eagle. Its great. The horse is like an extension of yourself. Or, spying a fox running up and over a mountain, and galloping over as fast as your horse will carry you, hooded eagle with wings half-open in the wind, in an attempt to get a slip. I daresay there are applications for horses in eagle
falconry outside central Asia.

Alema took her tenth fox and overall (I'd have to count) I've seen in the range of 35 foxes brought to bag by eagles this season. I was very happy with her tenth, because after speaking with several eaglehunters, that was the goal I set for myself when we started trapping. I'll describe a few flights:

Some foxes are very clever. One very orange-colored individual we chased around and around a few mountains for a day and a half. He seemed to always be one step ahead, and kept giving us the slip. We managed one flight, but he ran circles around a hill to cause the eagle to squander its height, then bolted across the steppe. The eagle pursued it into the steppe, but the fox turned ninety degrees at the last second and ran back to the safety of the tall mountains. We spent the night plotting how we could get the upper hand with the fox. The next day we split up on different mountains and managed to spy him running across the top of a mountain, refusing to go down either side (where the eagle would have had the advantage). From my point, on an equally high neighboring mountain, I slipped Alema. She powered out and, when five or ten feet above the summit, folded and took the fox. I was terribly excited - these foxes really are a worthy quarry. (Photo 0850)

The long flights are spectacular, but they give the fox alot of time to find refuge somewhere. I think of a case when we were on a high vantage point with two eagles unhooded. They bated at the same time, with real intensity - though we couldn't see anything it meant a fox. Both eagles were released and they seemed to fly forever ("Oi...Allah" one frequently hears the eaglehunters mutter in such an instance) into the distance. When just a speck, both eagles folded and went vertical. The first hit a mountainside in a miss, the second committed herself in a vertical stoop, but pulled out at the last second and landed. When we (finally!) arrived at the scene, there was a deep hole between the boulders where the fox had clearly gone. Eagle footprints disturbed the snow directly above - as Alema had been inquisitively peering inside.


Another day we found ourselves in mountains full of snow. It has fallen prodigiously the night previous, and it was tough going - both on foot and on horseback. The day seemed to drag on and by sunset we still had not managed to flush a single fox. We had one last sloping mountain to work, and then had to head home. The scareboy suddenly called to me to unhood my eagle - he had seen fresh fox tracks. I was on my horse, stomach in knots at what was going to happen. The scareboy slowly worked the area. Alema bolted. I couldn't see anything at first but then noticed a darker colored fox running along the gentle hills where the mountain eventually merges with the steppe. She did the usual technique - powered out above the hill, chose her moment, and went vertical. It wasn't a tremendous stoop, perhaps 200 feet, but it was beautiful. It ended with a spray of snow and a fantastic struggle. I was very worried the fox might get loose. I walked my horse down the steep part of the mountain, then when the snow was more manageable, leapt on and went as fast as I could. I kept between and then over the small hills. Every time my view was restored as I crested a hill, I hoped to see the eagle still on the fox. I raced past my guide, who sat in the snow watching it all through binos. When almost there, I saw the scareboy had made it to Alema and secured the kill. I breathed a sigh of relief. My guide soon came up to me and explained, "Lauren did you see that? Though the binos I saw your eagle grab the fox's front leg. The fox spun around and eventually she got her other foot on its mouth." No wonder it looked like a struggle! I gave the fox to the scareboy as a token of my appreciation, and they all said "Jacksa boldt" as we departed - a sort of catch-all phrase that means, "Good finish!" or "Good ending!". (Photo 0791)

The 0880 photo shows how the eagle's tuck their head under a wing once we start on the trek home. I don't blame them! The last photo is just for fun -- me and an eaglehunter on camelback. I like these shaggy camels, I've got to say. I've even heard stories of people using the hump as a natural arm-rest for their eagle!

Good hawking, everyone!

--Lauren






Text and photos above have been posted with the permission of Lauren McGough. Pictures are not to be used without the owner's permission

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