Dancing on the Wind


Soaring Golden Eagles in Eastern Oregon

Published in American Falconry magazine 2009

by Joe Atkinson
Vale, Oregon

A year ago we moved to the high desert of Eastern Oregon from Northern California where I have spent all of my life. The mountains and high desert plains of Eastern Oregon offer endless eagle flying and soaring possibilities that the area in California we lived in did not. I have flown eagles for years in all manners of hawking — off the fist at jacks, having the eagle follow me like a big Harris Hawk (okay, a huge Harris Hawk), and I have flown eagles from a soar, launching pheasants and ducks under them while the eagle was barely a visible fly speck in the sky. To see a golden eagle stoop from that great height is, I think, one of the most amazing sights in nature.

Even though we live in an area that is predominantly horse and cattle ranches with endless miles of open land, soaring an eagle that goes to a pin dot in the sky can still present a few problems. The main problem is that a golden eagle, male or female, can carry a duck or pheasant for a long ways, over fences, over rivers, over large herds of cattle and, regardless of what kind of bird you’re flying, a trained raptor carrying something to eat is never a good thing. Now, let me clarify one thing — when I say pin dot I mean around the size of one of the periods in this article, anything smaller and you loose sight of them and even as a pin dot it’s nearly impossible to see them. I don’t know exactly how high an eagle that has a six foot plus wing span is when it is a pin dot in the sky but someone once told me that they figured that the eagle is over four thousand feet up, figuring the size difference, and then he rattled off some formula that sounded like my physics class back in college and I started to drift. Let’s just say that an eagle that has gained the height of a pin dot is way the heck up there. I have trained falcons on a balloon that was at twelve hundred feet so I do have some kind of point of reference and the pin dot eagle is way, and I mean way, higher than that.

Getting an eagle to soar is not very difficult since they are fantastic soaring birds; it’s keeping them around that is the trick.  I approach the training much the same way I train my falcons to wait on. I get them up in the air and reward them for doing what I want by giving them something to chase and eat. Eagles hunt from the wing and take upland game from the stoop, so asking one to go up and come over is not out of their abilities. I’ve gotta say though, it’s a strange change from when I fly my falcons. When my falcon is flying and hunting and catching game, in the back of my mind I am always thinking about what is out there that wants to eat my bird, and if you don’t worry about that you should. But when I’m out flying eagles I’m not worried about what could eat them, I worry about what my eagle could eat!

The first thing is to find a good tall mountain or hill, some place that is accessible and has up-drafts that give lift. Accessibility is very important because walking up a big hill/mountain is not fun with a 9-lb eagle on your fist. On hills that are not accessible by truck I will launch my eagle at the bottom and meet him/her at the top. This gives them that much more of a workout and, in the process, saves my arm. Once at the top I’ll find a good spot and sit down and wait. If there is any wind at all they will fly. Eagles are not lazy birds despite their undeserved reputation. I have flown dozens of golden eagles and I have never known one that could resist wind blowing in its face. At first they will slope soar, where they ride the wind back and forth as it comes up the face of the mountain and this can be an effective way of hunting if game is plentiful at the bottom of the mountain. Slope soaring, however, is not truly soaring. True soaring is going out and actively searching for a thermal or column of rising warm air. Going up and then breaking out of the thermal, coming over looking for a flush, now that’s what I am looking for, that’s the ultimate!

I know that golden eagles are fast, extremely fast, ask any longwinger and they will tell you. But I needed to see for myself.  I asked myself this question€¦..with an eagle at a pin dot over my head what would happen if I served it a pheasant? Sure, the eagle is going to kill the pheasant, but how? In a falcon-like stoop or on the ground? Currently I am flying a female golden eagle that we call Widow. Why, you ask, is her name Widow? Well, apparently while being held in a large flight cage with other eagles she killed and cropped up on a male golden eagle, hence the name Black Widow, or Widow for short. Widow will go up to a pin dot height each time I fly her and she’ll do it four or five times so this presented the perfect opportunity to answer my question.

I went to the mountain with Widow and a bagged pheasant, not knowing what I was going to see but knowing that it was going to be something exciting. The first time I served her a pheasant it was, well, not the most exciting flight I ever saw. The pheasant didn’t fly well and, as often happens, the pheasant flew in the wrong direction, heading straight up a very steep hillside. Widow was coming down in a full stoop but because the pheasant flew up the hillside and soon landed, Widow caught it on the ground. I did answer one question which was not a big surprise — the second I released the pheasant there was no hesitation on Widow’s part, she stooped immediately. But it was not my intent to serve her pheasants that she catches on the ground. I wanted the ultimate flight.
Since she reacted so quickly to the pheasant I thought I’d throw a new twist in the game, pigeons. So the next day I drove up to the mountain with my eagle and some homers to toss. This could be a falconry first, driving out to toss pigeons for a female golden eagle, and I really did not know what to expect. Widow flew out over the valley, jumped on a thermal, and was up in no time, coming over me well over two thousand feet up. I took out a strong homer and tossed it in the air. Widow never dipped a wing. I then released four homers at once, thinking more is better. Nothing. Okay, so golden eagles are not interested in homing pigeons. Back to the pheasants..our pigeons are safe.

On the next trip up the mountain Widow again flew out over the valley, jumped on a thermal and was taken up into the clouds. In what seemed just seconds she made a wide banking turn and was directly over me just like any good falcon, the only difference being that she was four times bigger and many, many times higher. I purposely walked out to a point that overlooks the valley, hoping that the pheasant would fly out into open air and, by doing this, stay in the air longer. Sometimes things work out, and on this day things did. The pheasant flew out strong and fast, climbing into the wind and gaining height as it powered out and over the valley. Widow was in a full stoop, wings tucked tight against her body, and was building speed fast, coming in like a runaway freight train. Meanwhile, the pheasant flew in a big arcing turn. Widow was closing on it with unbelievable speed and then suddenly she seemed to check herself. I think she momentarily lost sight of the pheasant because I could see her head turning left and right as she pitched up like a huge black falcon. But in an instant Widow locked back on her target and did a wing-over, building speed once again. The pheasant was now clearly aware that all was not well and started to race to the ground, a race that it was not going to win. Just a few feet from the ground Widow arrived at the pheasant, and with extreme attitude, struck the pheasant just as it reached the ground. Dust and feathers flew up in all directions as a short ground chase ensued but the pheasant was all but done by the time it hit the ground.

This still was not quite the flight I was looking for but real close. Like I said, nothing stoops like an eagle and, to me, it is one of the most amazing sights in nature. I will keep working towards my goal, hunting eagles from a waiting-on position and who knows where that might lead. But I know one thing for sure, it will be exciting.

Eagle Journal entry:
Widow, female passage eagle
Wt. 9lbs 10oz

I cast Widow off and she flies straight out over the valley looking for a thermal. I stand next to my truck parked up on a four thousand foot mountain watching as she grows smaller and smaller, and now, more than a mile away, she finds what she was looking for. Just barely visible I see her go straight up as if some kind of rope was pulling her up into the heavens. She has flown out of my eyesight, but I know she is there. I can feel her presence, something I cannot explain but just something I can feel. I start walking down the hill, out into the sage, and as I get to the bottom and begin working the cover, I spot her, just a mere black dot in the blue sky but it is her, I know. I work the sage brush back and forth hoping to kick out a jack or any other prey for her, anything to reward her for hunting with me. We have a partnership, we hunt together, but the truth is she could go and hunt anywhere. At more than a mile up in the blue sky she has unlimited range. She can see things that I cannot, she can go places that I can only dream of for I am tied to the ground, and she is not bound by anything. So I struggle on the ground searching for game to flush under her in an effort to show her that I am a worthy partner. I am working the hill and I suddenly feel she is gone. I stop and search the blue sky. I look out over the endless valleys and canyons looking for my hunting partner. I see nothing. I start the long walk back, for on this day I left my receiver in the truck. As I make my way back to the truck I am struck by a feeling of emptiness and a whole bunch of thoughts start flooding my head. Is she gone for good? Did she see something running along the ground, a jack rabbit maybe, on some far off mountain and catch it? I reach my truck and turn on the receiver. I get a strong signal, she is near. I look up and there she is directly over the truck, about the size of a house fly.  She is in another big time thermal, gaining height with every turn. I lean up against my truck and watch as she goes even higher and now, as she is fading out of eyesight, I throw out the lure and watch and listen for the sound, the sound of something moving through the air, the sound of speed. I can see her now, just a speck, coming right at me. Her form starts to take shape; wings folded up tight against her body, she is coming at me with tremendous speed.  Closer now I can see her jesses trailing behind. She has dropped her feet to help control the speed she is bringing. I can hear the sound as she rips through the air and suddenly wings flare and she is on the lure. I stand there looking at her, this creature I just called out of the heavens from who knows how far away and somehow I feel that a part of me was up there with her as she was dancing on the wind.