Jackhammer: 8lbs 10oz
Wind: 5-29 mph / Temp: 26- 60
Cordi and I left Vale, Oregon on Monday morning (11/27) on the last leg of a 17 day long journey heading back to our home in California. Two inches of snow covered the ranch in Vale, changing the look as only snow can. With a 6’x12’
U-Haul trailer filled with Xmas decorations that are now making the trip back to California we pulled out on the open road. With Cordi happily playing some sort of intellectual mind game on her lap-top I found myself drifting back and reliving the past 16 days, the flights, and the wonderful new friends Cordi and I made¦¦.. (Don’t worry I can drift and drive at the same time, so we’re safe!)
Saturday 11/11, 4:30 am:
We stayed up way late the night before to pack and load the truck. Somehow Cordi was able to fit everything in, which included 4 dogs, 2 falcons, one eagle and all the stuff that goes with them and, not to mention, our own stuff. With the truck already running we took a moment to run down a list in our heads. Did we forget anything? Going over a check list started for us while our two daughters played soccer. They used to say, œYes Dad, we have everything, you don’t have to remind us, yes, yes, yes, as I’m asking œGot your soccer shoes? œShoes? NO, go back!!! These are the times parents live for. So Cordi and I continued to go down the list — dog food, bird food, extra equipment, etc, etc. As near as we could think we had everything. I cleared the trip mileage counter and out the driveway we went.
We wanted to get as far as Wyoming, somewhere near Rock Springs. We ended up staying at the Little America Hotel in Little America that night — nice place but they didn’t allow dogs. Maggie and Thistle sleep in the truck; they have their own compartments and they love it. But for Delbert and Charlotte, our two mini Dachshunds, sleeping out in the truck when it’s 20’ out was not an option. There must have been 20 œNo Dogs in the Rooms signs just in the lobby alone! Usually I ignore the dreaded œNo Dogs signs but with so many it was nearly impossible. So we did what we always do, stuffed Delbert and Charlotte in an empty duffel bag and smuggled them into the room.
The plan in Wyoming was to meet Lars and Kevin, two local eagle falconers, in the morning and hunt JH on some whitetail jack rabbits. Kevin took us out to his main hunting area, which was a vast open snow covered sage brush plateau that dropped off into a large valley with a dry creek bed running through it. The plan was to walk out into the field, all of us in a line, and hunt JH. Well, the second I un-hooded JH things went downhill. Plus, finding a white tailed jack proved difficult, well, more than difficult, because we never found any. Not through lack of effort mind you, just that they simply were not there. The elusive white ghost strikes again! JH did go after one cotton tail, and then spent the next 3 hours flying up the side of a very large hill/mountain every time I released him. I had to walk all the way up to the top, stand 3 inches in front of him, lowering my glove, and then, and only then, would he jump on the fist. Down the hill/mountain we would go, trying to hunt, hoping for a jack slip. Working the creek bed I flushed a few cotton tails, which would promptly disappear, and JH would then fly all the way back up the hill. On the fourth or fifth trip back up the mountain to retrieve the little darling (I lost count because I was gasping for breath. Thinking back I probably should have carried an oxygen tank.) I remember thinking¦¦so this is how it will all end, me walking up a mountain after a misbehaving eagle, I would have never guessed. So, that didn’t go so well. Lars and Kevin did their best but we saw only one jack. Well, I never even saw it. I had taken a knee and was feeding JH up when the one and only jack flushed¦¦..
On to Garden City, Kansas and the IEAA meet:
Neither Cordi nor I had ever been to Kansas; all I knew was that Kansas is the spawning ground for tornados, but thankfully this was not the right time of year. If you like to be able to see in any direction for miles and miles and not see anything that is taller than an irrigation pivot (a huge water pipeline on wheels that travels in a full or half circle watering a field of crops) then Kansas is your place. Oh, and you better like wind, and having nothing to slow it down, the wind does blow. But from a falconry point of view, Kansas and, more specifically, Garden City is the mother lode. Lots of pheasants, bob white quail (out in the open fields, and not knowing they were in the area, the first time they flushed right under my foot, scared the living hell out of me), prairie chickens, and the most beautiful black tail jack rabbits I have ever seen. The jacks are big, 6 lbs plus, and look every bit like a white tail jack except with a black tail. In fact, one of the first jacks that JH flew at took a direct hit in the side from JH and shook him off and kept running. I saw that and thought, oh boy, we are in for some fun.
As we checked into the motel the first day and were unloading our traveling zoo, more and more people rolled in for the meet. The days went pretty much like this¦..up at 6:00 am, meet across the street for breakfast at 7:00, go hawking. We almost had to eat breakfast because the motel gave out coupons for a free breakfast each day and it was good. Chase Delles did a fantastic job organizing the entire meet. The areas he lined up to hunt were first rate. The main landowner was a man that goes by the name of Renegade (must be a Kansas thing) and was quite a character. Cordi asked him exactly how much land he owned and he said, and I quote, œa lot! Way more than the 4,000 acres we could see when he swiped his hand over the horizon pointing out land marks off in the distance and then finally said œhell, I’m not sure.
I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow of each day because that would take, well, 17 days, and I don’t think Cordi would proof the entire thing, so I’ll give you the highlights. My plan was to fly my falcons on pheasants in the morning and JH in the mid-day because pheasants are out and about in the mornings and jacks, well, they are around all day. Plus, JH doesn’t really care when he flies. Now, I don’t consider myself an expert pheasant hawker, I have friends that are very skilled at pheasant hawking, Art Tawatari and Doug Cummings are two falconers that come to mind, but I do know one or two things. Going to eat breakfast at 7:00 am is not in the formula for hunting pheasants, at least if you want to find flyable slips, but we had those free coupons¦¦
We had arrived in the field somewhere around 8:00 am, give or take, according to the number of refills of coffee and orange juice that had gone around. I struck my 8-year-old gyr/peregrine Blackie’s hood and off he went. Now the idea was to fly him kind of on speck, but we had seen some pheasants put in the CRP (the wild, non-cropland) that borders the hay fields. Blackie, while in the midst of mounting up, saw a rooster pheasant running or something and stooped, knocking him down on the gravel road, and after a big throw-up and wingover, went in on the pheasant. The cock pheasant, however, jumped up and flew across the CRP. Blackie, being a hybrid, has 3 or 4 extra gears and closed on the pheasant, knocking him down again. Blackie then landed on a pole thinking œwhere is the pheasant I just knocked down? Joe, the falconer (me), headed over somewhat annoyed that Blackie was on a pole, thinking I could get a point, and as I worked my way over there a hen pheasant flushed and Blackie flew it down, putting her in to some round hay bales. This was a bad thing because now Blackie thinks he can fly things down from poles¦¦and he’s right, he can. As I was walking over to the hay bales I went right through the area where the cock pheasant had been knocked down, Maggie got hot and locked up, and brought me the rooster pheasant that Blackie had killed. I stuffed the rooster in my vest and continued towards the hay bales only to find Blackie plucking a hen pheasant¦¦two birds, one flight. Not much in the way of style, but interesting none the less.
I love taking my birds to new places to hunt, although it does take a toll on them, long hours in their hoods, riding in the back of the truck. Weathering is a key to how the birds will fly. They need time to relax and preen and get a look at exactly where you have hauled them off to this time. Weathering an eagle, however, is problematic at best. You have to be careful that nothing comes near your bird; for example, at the Oregon Falconers Meet I placed JH out on his block and no sooner turned around than a young girl was walking up to see the œbig bird. The list of things that can go wrong is a long one and you can never really relax when your eagle is out weathering. I want to come up with a portable enclosed weathering yard that I can put my birds in and feel reasonably certain that they are safe, one that can be transported and put together in a short amount of time. I need to solve this problem. In the meantime, we weathered our birds out on the ranch, setting up a little camp to block JH from the other falcons, Harris Hawks, Goshawks, Red Tails, Ferruginous and eagles.
JH’s weight would prove to be an issue the entire trip. In the motel room the first morning he weighed in at 8 lbs, 10 oz, a full 7oz’s higher than his so called œin the field with guests weight! I would fly him anyway. I didn’t drive 1,435 miles not to!
The fields were perfect — large hay fields with very short grass, 1 inch high or less. Picture this, you’re looking out at a field that has a slight drop off to it, covered with green grass, and there are areas in the field where the tumbleweeds have rolled up into clumps, not very thick, but kind of sparsely lying about in the hay field. Under any one of these clumps a jack could flush, most did have a jack rabbit hiding under them. The flushed jack would then run downwind and downhill, heading towards the CRP bordering the hay field, some 500 to 600 yards away. With many guests in the field we formed a line and began to work the field. A jack flushed and JH launched, closed on the jack, made some kind of attempt at hooking it as he went past, and it headed for the CRP way down at the bottom of the hay field. Now that I think back about it, when JH flew over the top of the rabbit I don’t think he was trying to hook the jack, I think he was giving me the finger! He flew straight over the jack and headed way out into the CRP, way out there. So off I went on another retrieval mission with all the IEAA meet attendee’s standing there watching me go. Cordi was filming but, fortunately for her, I did not have the microphone on because the language coming out of me would have made a sailor blush. JH flew out into the CRP and landed somewhere over a small hill, out of sight. Naturally, as I got closer he felt it necessary to fly even farther out into the heavy thickly covered CRP field. But as I crested the hill the little darling was in fact flying back to me and landed on my fist as if to say œhi, what’s up? I turned and started the long walk back¦¦.
All flights at game are memorable. Any time a trained bird goes after something it’s exciting, but some flights stand out over the rest. When thinking about Garden City three flights stand above the others¦¦.
–Because of the wind and cold temperatures I was concerned that all the viewers that wanted to see JH hunt would be uncomfortable, so I had them drive their vehicles in the field and watch from their car seats like a drive-in movie. That’s the kind of guy I am. OK, the truth is, JH was being such an idiot about people in the field that that’s the only way they could watch, how embarrassing. There I was, out in the field, uphill, above all the clumps of tumbleweed, and there are 5 or 6 cars parked close by, all in a line, passing drinks and cheese back and forth while watching me hunt this field.
I started working the clumps from side to side keeping the strong crosswind at my side. I had flushed one or two jacks already and JH flew them well, into the wind, with the jacks doing switch backs left and then right for 60 yards and JH matching them turn for turn. Another jack flushed 20 feet in front of me and JH launched off the fist and hit the jack directly in the side with both feet. I could see JH’s yellow feet clearly on the side of the large black tail jack rabbit but the jack just shook off the hit and kept running! I had never seen that before. These jacks were big, 6 lbs plus, and have a thick coat of fur, and they can take a hit! JH returned to the fist and I moved on. Another jack flushed off my right side, heading uphill into the wind. JH launched, cut the jack off and, slamming into the ground, looked puzzled as to why he didn’t have it? The jack turned and ran straight away, downhill and downwind. JH launched again and powered after the jack. All I could see was the white butt of the jack rabbit running at full speed way down the hill with JH closing with tremendous speed. JH overtook the jack as it made one or two zigs and zags, came barreling in from behind, grabbed the jack, and came to a sliding stop. The gallery watching in their cars blew their car horns in appreciation of what they had just seen!
–After standing around most of the morning taking wind speed measurements, which were holding steady at 19 mph, gusting to 28 mph, things were not looking good. Finally I could not stand it any longer and announced that I was going to fly, regardless of the wind! JH was ready and I did not want to feed him up, nor did I want him to go hungry another day, so fly it was. I was not worried because eagles can handle heavy wind, just the quality of flights would be down. So we broke our weathering camp and headed out to an area that had not been flown yet. All the cars were once again parked in a line and I headed out into the field. Aside from finding jacks under the clumps of tumbleweed out in the hay field, they could also be found in the areas of natural grass that grow where the irrigation pivot does not reach. They look like the patches that you miss when you mow your lawn, oddly shaped triangles with long fingers that run along the edges of the hay field, only to get smaller and smaller until they are gone. It is in these funny shaped areas that you can find jacks, pheasants, and bob white quail. I walked a few feet from the line of cars and started hunting one of these areas. I started working my way across the face of the cars with JH barely able to hold onto my glove. In fact, he had a good death grip on my hand, and had turned to face into the gale wind. From somewhere a jack flushed right in front of us, going straight into the wind. JH got a great jump off the fist and was almost instantly over the jack which was running for all it’s worth, heading for the dirt road 20 yards in front of it. Flying just off the ground, JH was closing on the jack rabbit as it reached the road. The jack turned right and started down the dirt road when JH came bombing in and grabbed the jack in the butt. I came running up and so did all the gang. The jack, to me, appeared dead so I stepped JH off and hooded him, only to have the jack jump up and take off. Well, I quickly unhooded JH and he caught the jack rabbit again, this time finishing the job. I lobbied heavily for a second score but was voted down, the group saying that it looked too suspicious the way I had stepped JH off the jack, like I knew the jack was going to run off ¦whatever!
–Cordi and I were hunting a field that was off the main dirt road. We were mainly killing time waiting for Chase to catch up to us. I was in the field and Cordi was on the road filming. I wasn’t overly confident that we were in a good spot as I had not seen much, if any, signs of rabbit activity as I worked the field. From out of nowhere Renegade showed up and was talking with Cordi, who then called me on the radio saying that Renegade knew a place that had jack rabbits like fleas on a dog and that no one had hunted it yet. Well I instantly thought, forget Chase, let’s go! We followed Renegade through and around several gates and around thick patches of tumbleweeds that had gotten caught in corners of the fields and piled up against the fence lines. It’s actually quite amazing. There were many places where the tumbleweeds had piled up so thick against the fence that the shear weight of the tumbleweeds and the power of the wind had pulled the barbed wire off the fence posts. As you were driving along you would see strands of fence wire pulled way out into the field covered in tumbleweeds. Anyway, we followed Renegade past a hay barn and a full set of working corrals where he informed us that he would tell his hired man not to bother us. When the ranch owner tells his employees not to bother you, you just gotta love that!! Driving past the corrals the fields took on a different look altogether, a little hillier and not hay fields but fields that were used for holding cattle. The one field in particular was roughly 50 acres with most of the grass eaten off by cows but with a considerable number of tumbleweeds in clumps everywhere in the field. Well, this was the mother lode. Each clump had one, and many times, two jacks under it. I would say I easily flushed fifty jacks out of that field. This is the field where I wished JH would have been on his game, no telling how many jacks he could have caught. With Cordi set up to film I entered the field and within two steps up jumped a large jack running for the open irrigated field out beyond the field I was hunting. JH was off like a shot, closing fast as the jack ran under a single wire electric fence. JH just missed the wire with his body and both jesses hit the fence. I heard the sound and could see the fence wire bouncing up and down. JH landed out in the pasture and was a little shook up. He would not return to the glove so I had to walk over and get him, flushing rabbit after rabbit as I went! JH flew the last 20 feet to the glove and after a once-over to make sure that everything was in order we continued to hunt. I was trying to work my way over to where Cordi was set up to get better camera angles but kept getting flight after flight. One interesting aspect about these jacks was that when they flushed, unlike the jacks back in California that flush and run as fast as they can, these Kansas jacks would flush, see the eagle, and immediately turn sharply under the approaching eagle, sometimes not more than ten feet from where I was standing. This presented a major problem for JH. JH comes off the fist with such power that he would literally be over the jack already as it turned and didn’t have any time to adjust. It was clear from the start that these jacks did not want to get in a race with a golden eagle — that is one race they would lose. Given time I am sure JH would have made the adjustment and become very successful. But time we did not have and I saw JH over-fly 20 jacks at the very least. But not all¦¦it occurred to me that by going into the clumps of tumbleweeds, making as much noise and commotion as possible, the jacks would flush harder and run more. Working the field I had my eye on a particular inviting cluster of tumbleweeds and I headed in that direction. JH was actually hunting now, looking at all possible hiding places when we went into the cover. Sure enough, a jack flushed with speed and ran, turning to my left. JH launched and hammered the 6.5 lb jack rabbit not more than 20 feet from where I stood! That was the sixth jack rabbit that JH took at the IEAA eagle meet and since we were planning on leaving the next day that would be his last of the meet.
Cordi and I had a wonderful time in Garden City, lots of game and very friendly people. But what really made the meet special was the new friends we made, what a fun group to hang out with. The truth is Cordi and I had not planned on spending much time at the NAFA meet, but we were having such a great time, with Chase, Michael, Andrew, Alan, Mike and Julie, Geoff, Lauren, Mark, Sam, Bill, Dave and Pam we extended our stay. Not all the gang went on to the NAFA meet but most did and we had a blast there as well.
Overall I would give JH a C+ grade for the meet. Yes, he caught 6 jacks, but he was way too concerned with people in the field which made hunting him rather difficult and at times somewhat embarrassing, having to go and retrieve him most of the time. I know he has issues with guests in the field but this was over the top, even for him. If he would have just dialed in for any length of time, man oh man, I would have needed a trailer to haul the jacks back home. But such is falconry. Next year I will have him ready even if I have to stand at the front door of Wal-Mart for 3 hours a day to get him over this.
Cordi and I traveled many roads without ends and met many new friends and that, after all, is what it is all about.
Hope all is well,
Pic 1: First double catch of the meet, two 6 pounders.
Pic 2: Getting ready. Andrew just couldn’t keep his hands off JH.
Pic 3: Look at that eagle!!! JH gets held by a falconer from Kazakhstan who flies
a 16 lb female golden eagle at wolves. Nice pants.
Pic 4: Banquet night at the IEAA meet. A great time was had by all.