Air Support

by Joe  Atkinson
(published in The Austringer The Journal of the Welsh Hawking Club 2011)

The weather has been extremely nice the last few days and today was no exception, high 60’s and clear.

My team consists of a female golden eagle, flying weight 9.5 lbs, and my two dogs, Dakota and Thistle. My job is to find places to hunt jack rabbits, the two dogs are my ground troops and the eagle is our air support. Ground control to Major Tom!

The area I selected today is wide open BLM land. On one side are some good sized hills, almost big enough to be called mountains, covered in bunch grass. On the other side of what makes up this area is almost flat ground covered with sage brush. This is where the jacks will be if they are here at all. The normal routine is to get air support off first as she will need some time to survey the area and find the appropriate thermals so she can get into attack position which, for her, ranges anywhere from 500 ft to 3000 ft or higher at any given time. She will catch a thermal, go up and come over, giving us ground troops unequaled and powerful air cover. We may not control the entire area on the ground but we do control the air! With the two dogs fanning out I try to keep myself in the hunt by staying off to the side of the ground troops so as not to walk in the same cover as they are. Looking for rabbit signs, I see them everywhere. It does not take the dogs long to act excited and they quicken their pace. I see a flash as a jack runs through the sage and disappears in the heavy cover. A quick check on air support — she is at 2500 ft, directly overhead, circling, maintaining her commanding position. We have worked our way up along a deep gorge that runs up into the hillside. It is too deep to cross so I am going to walk it out. I can see it gets softer up ahead and I can cross there. Suddenly I see a brown flash come up from the bottom of the gorge, scramble up the far side and head up the hill. A coyote has been put on the run by my ground troops and is heading away at speed. This has not gone unnoticed by air support; she is tracking the coyote from high above. With her wings in a slight tuck she is able to stay directly over the fleeing coyote. With a quick wing-over she is in a full stoop. I can hear her ripping the air. Feet outstretched, she is coming in fast and clips the back end of the coyote that gives off a yelp and rolls under a sage bush. Dust is filling the air and air support is in a huge throw-up, not unlike a massive falcon. At the top, with her speed fading, she hangs in the air and goes in for another attack. The coyote has found safety in a den and is nearly out of sight but still letting all concerned know that he or she is not happy about the eagle’s presence. Air support came in slightly slower on this attack run, trying to hook the coyote in the den as she went by. The coyote, however, easily avoided her attempt and vanished down the hole. The ground troops arrived on the scene to investigate what was the cause of all the excitement. I recalled them and we headed off in the opposite direction. Air support is actively looking for another thermal to regain control of the air as my ground team moves on.

canyon the coyote ran through

Having been a longwinger for many years I am always checking on the position of my falcon and, in the back of my mind, the thought of something going wrong with my flight is always there. When my falcon drifts off I get nervous, thinking he might see something off on some faraway hill and chase it or catch it and be eaten by an eagle. With a female eagle I find myself at first worrying but than realizing, it’s an eagle, nothing is going to eat a female golden eagle. She went a long ways to the south with her wings in a half tuck, then caught a thermal and began to circle, working her way back in my direction. I feel blessed, as each time I put my team into action I have the opportunity to witness dogs and eagle all coming together on the same page. Whether we catch something or not, I think this is the true essence of falconry; bringing all this into play is what the sport is all about for me. I have always felt that falconers can achieve a closer bond with all things that are wild, not because we think we know more, but simply because we are privileged to see things most never get to see. By watching nature unfolding in front of our eyes we are connected in ways most are not. Good hawking.