Yes, I am a long way from the cold sagebrush sea of Wyoming, sitting around a campfire.
I stood in front of Imbulog’s chamber door and paused for a second; behind me I could hear Christine and Cordi getting everything ready. Christine was cutting up the rabbit into bite-size pieces and Cordi was testing the radio telemetry, replacing batteries with fresh ones and making sure everyone had a two-way radio. I had drifted off in a flashback, thinking about how we all came to be here and the gravity of what we were about to do, fly the rarest eagle in the world out in the jungle, free, with nothing on it but a transmitter mounted on the eagle’s tail.
“Joe, are you ready?” Cordi’s question snapped me back to real time. “We need to cut off Imbulog’s cuffs and replace them with the removable snap-on ones.” Wildlife shows don’t want to have the eagles they are filming wearing cuffs and jesses on their legs; takes away from the wildness. To be clear, the scenes we were hoping to film would only be used to possibly add some close-up detail to the stunning footage that Neil and his wife, Laura, had shot of wild Philippine eagles while they lived in the jungle for six months.
I walked into the chamber and Imbulog greeted me with wings spread wide and calling in anticipation of the arrival of food. He was a long way from starving, of course, but, with my appearance, he knew food was to follow. This was just the reaction I was looking for. Getting him on the glove was not any big deal; I could walk up to him, reach around behind him, and he would step back onto my gloved arm. Then he’d squeeze down on my arm, pinching everything together, leather, flesh and all. In fact, it got to the point that my arm was all black and blue and was starting to blister up and ooze. Cordi started wrapping my arm in vet-wrap before I slipped on my glove, which, thankfully, stopped my skin from being squished. This made handling him much more pleasant!
Having him locked down on my arm actually worked to our advantage. Neil was able to easily attach the transmitter tail-mount clip onto Imbulog’s middle tail feather and then cut the cuffs off each leg, replacing them with the removable snap-off cuffs I had made. I’ve never quite gotten comfortable removing cuffs off an eagle I’m about to fly. I remember in Kansas, working on a National Geographic film where they wanted a predation scene with a golden eagle and a jackrabbit. Jackhammer, my female golden, is a very aggressive hunter and catches jackrabbits quickly, making it great for filming. Christine and I had just removed Jackhammer’s cuffs and, when everyone was in place, I removed her hood. She looked around, looked down at her feet, looked at me and proceeded to foot me in the bicep, driving her talons all the way in, just sending a message of who’s really in charge. She was brilliant the rest of the time and, thankfully, never footed me again. So, you can see why I’m a little uncomfortable flying eagles with uncontrolled feet.
With the snap-on cuffs on, it was time to make my way down the winding path, past the crocodile exhibit, through the hole in the fence and across the creek that led into the protected watershed area where we would be filming. This is still untouched Philippine jungle, complete with giant dipterocarp trees. The previous days, we had made many a scouting sortie into the watershed, looking for the best location to film. We found one and also found a guy with an AK-47 strapped over his shoulder. He was not pleased to see us! He came up, waving his arms, shouting at us. Of course, none of us had any clue what he was saying. Note to self: when there are known rebels in the area, have someone that can speak the language with you, you know, to keep from being kidnapped or shot. Thankfully, a staff member from the Eagle Foundation heard the commotion and came to our rescue and the AK-47 toting rebel disappeared back into the jungle. But I don’t think he totally left, just saying!
One of my biggest worries (and I had many big worries) was the long walk, ten to fifteen minutes, to get to the filming area. Keep in mind that Imbulog was not hooded and I didn’t actually know if my cuffs would hold if he tried to leave my arm. I had used the heaviest duty snaps I could find, two of them on each cuff. One would think that would be enough but I still didn’t know for sure. How could I have tested them? So there I was, walking very gingerly, so as not to give Imbulog any reason to launch off my arm, hoping to get to the set without any mishaps. If Imbulog decided to be a goofball and throw a fit, not liking the idea of riding on my fist for so long, he would not be in the right mindset to come back to me! Angry birds don’t come back. I held a piece of rabbit fur in my hand to distract him with as we walked along.
The only time Imbulog acted like he might want to leave was when we walked past a very large roosting colony of flying foxes, the largest bat in the world. There were hundreds of them hanging upside down in a large leafless tree. They are bigger than our red tailed hawks, what a cool animal. Imbulog was most interested in them; more than likely he had eaten some while he was in the wild. What a flight that must have been! I turned slightly to shield his view as I walked through the short gap on the pathway where the tree could be seen.
Finally, Imbulog and I arrived on the set. It seemed like an hour’s walk but, if you ask Cordi, it was more like ten minutes. All the cameras were in place along the predetermined flight pathway where Cordi was to throw the lure. I removed Imbulog’s cuffs and placed him on one of the natural log perches we had put in place the day before and crossed my fingers. Would he take off after the bats he saw or go higher into one of the massive trees and fly out of the area? Just my brain going a little nuts. Philippine eagles are forest eagles but unlike other forest eagles such as the Harpy, which prefers to ambush its prey, the Philippine eagle is a pursuit predator. They can fly through tree branches, twisting and turning, like a giant goshawk. The direction Imbulog was to fly to get to the lure required him flying over and through some pretty thick jungle. I could only see him leave, nothing else. Cordi called him and off he went in a flash. I stood and held my radio waiting to here Christine’s voice saying he did it and Mom’s okay.
On day two, as I was placing Imbulog on a perch, our radios sounded off that there were dogs heading our way. Fortunately, they were successfully scared off and never came close enough for Imbulog to see. That may have ended flying for a few days as Imbulog digested a full crop of dog meat.
In the end, Imbulog did everything we asked. He flew four days in a row and got to the point that he sat on the lure in between shots as cameras were moved and people milled about; nothing fazed him. What a joy to fly and handle this amazing eagle. Cordi, Christine and I all wished we had a few extra days that we could have gone out and flown Imbulog just for fun; let him cruise around, doing what wild Philippine eagles do.
Our whole experience in the Philippines is like a dream. It’s such a different country from where we live; the two environments could not be any more extreme. The Philippines with its hot humid temperatures, surrounded by jungle, and eastern Oregon with its dry, very low humidity, wide-open sagebrush. At the time, I didn’t think about the gravity of the situation, I was just totally focused on getting the job done and not losing an eagle. The Philippine people are exceedingly friendly and welcoming. Well, okay, not AK-47 guy, but everyone else was very warm and friendly. I know I can speak for Cordi as well, that the eagles touched us in a way like no other raptor ever had or ever will. They have so many challenges to overcome just to live in the wild. Their forest is being stripped daily, all the prey animals are disappearing and eagles are being shot. We were greatly impacted by this magnificent blue-eyed eagle that seems to look right into your soul. I can still hear the sad and mournful calls Imbulog and Mabuhay made, calling and calling. What is their future, who will answer their calls?
Cordi was so impacted by these beautiful, amazing eagles that, when we returned home, she started a non-profit…CMA Fund. We had witnessed, firsthand, a program developed by the Philippine Eagle Foundation called the Forest Watchers or Forest Guards. In this program indigenous villages are provided a much-needed service, such as a schoolhouse or medical clinic, in exchange for the villagers being deputized to preserve the forest in their area and protect any residing wild eagles. The villagers are also taught sustainable farming practices and provided seeds and trees to replant their forest. It is a win-win for all three – the indigenous people, the eagles and the forest. By helping any one, you help the other two. Cordi’s goal is to raise funds to establish more Forest Watcher groups. Any donations would be greatly appreciated, either by check, made out to CMA Fund, or via PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also encourage you to go to Cordi’s Facebook page,
Philippine Eagle ‘Forest Watchers”, and see some photos.