Over the years my wife, Cordi, and I have flown our eagles for many different films and TV projects and our knowledge and experience have taken us to many places around the world. One of the most interesting projects we worked on was in the Philippines, training the highly endangered Philippine Eagle as part of a documentary produced by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is one of the most impressive raptors in the world. Take a moment to look it up, you will see what I mean.
One thing we had never done was fly an eagle on live TV. Typically, our eagles are filmed with one or two cameras in the field working to get an action shot. Usually, this involves off-the-fist flight at jackrabbits (which are really hares and I don’t know why we call them rabbits). There is always pressure for our eagles to deliver the money shot, as they say, and, thankfully, they usually do, but in these scenarios we have the luxury of repeating shots. One of our female golden eagles, Jackhammer, is very aggressive and, like all golden eagles, loves to hunt, particularly jackrabbits, so she is a favorite for these shots. But when you factor in that the producers want all equipment removed from the eagle so it will look like a wild eagle, things don’t always go as planned. It’s much easier said than done. Jackhammer is an imprint and not a nice imprint either. She hunts with reckless enthusiasm and, although she will settle into the hunting on camera thing soon enough, it’s the first few flights and the trade-off that can be just a little tricky. Try controlling your eagle, or any trained raptor, on your fist, with no jesses, on a windy day.
All of our eagles are falconry eagles first, film stars a distant second. One, in particular, is Widow, a female that flies at 9.5lbs and waits-on over our Tazi sighthounds as we hunt the open, endless sea of sagebrush that is the dominant landscape here in Eastern Oregon.
Widow has worked on three different projects — “The Sagebrush Sea”, produced by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a Daily 360 video entitled “Soar With an Eagle” for the New York Times and her latest, “Earth Live” produced by National Geographic and BBC. Not a bad line up.
“Earth Live” was a major time commitment for Cordi and me. The shot list the producers wanted was extensive…flying across the canyon, stooping down to the bottom of the canyon, soaring high over the canyon. Oh, and doing all this while wearing an onboard camera that would transmit a signal down to a satellite truck. From there the signal would be sent on to New York, all live, and broadcast on live TV. Wait, what? Let me see if I understand this, you’re talking live TV; no second takes, no do-overs. So, if our eagle, Widow, decided to fly off, all of my falconer buddies would be watching. Actually, 82 countries across the world would be watching. Oh boy, that’s pressure on a whole different level. I don’t know about your falconer buddies but mine would totally love to see Widow do an exit stage left on live TV. I would never hear the end of it, ever!
The issues to prepare Widow for this shoot were many. The main one was the weight of the camera unit and, specifically, the battery. The entire unit weighed 14 oz., 396.8 grams. The frame I built needed to be long enough to house the camera, battery and antenna. In turn, the antenna needed to face downward and be long enough to avoid interference from Widow’s body. Pointing down, through her tail feathers, worked perfectly. Fortunately, the camera itself was small and cigar-shaped, therefore making it very aerodynamic. Widow has carried onboard cameras before which were not aerodynamic at all and caused a lot of drag as she flew. The New York Times 360 project called for Widow to carry around a camera that looked like a billiard ball; talk about awkward. Widow was to fly out over the sagebrush like a wild eagle while the camera filmed in 360 degrees. The truth is, the only thing that saved that project was that the wind picked up to 25mph and, with that kind of lift, she flew well despite the weight of the camera. You can see the video on the New York Times website under Daily 360 ,“Soaring With an Eagle”.
“Earth Live” presented some issues to overcome that we had never faced before. Having Widow soar with the camera on was one thing but the airtime of the live broadcast in our area, MST, was to be 6pm to 8pm. This added another twist. We had never flown Widow that late in the day and I hazarded to guess that 6-8pm was not a time for prime soaring conditions. And, just to add another couple issues into the mix, the show was to air on July 9th. Here in the high desert, desert being the operative word, the temperatures can be 110F, 43C, or higher. Plus, we have more than our fair share of rattlesnakes in the summer and the evening is when they are most active. It just kept getting better!
Cordi and I began the slow process of conditioning Widow to wear the camera while flying out over a large canyon that was selected for its rugged beauty and would offer some much needed lift to help her stay in the air. Once we solved the problem of strapping the camera on in a way that gave as much stability and comfort as possible, Widow settled in with the whole idea. It was now a matter of Widow adjusting to the weight and building up enough conditioning. We did have some iffy moments, I will admit, but, as I said, we kept making adjustments until she was as comfortable as possible wearing the camera. Now the challenge was to find the correct downward angles that would allow Widow to fly across the canyon, at speed, from Cordi to me. Once all the starting points were figured out it came down to giving Widow enough prep time to ensure that she was totally dialed in, allowing as little room for error as possible. Cordi and I worked for months getting Widow ready. As with all things, we had our fair share of setbacks such as equipment malfunctions and even weather became a major issue, namely rain. Since when does it rain heavily in the high desert in the summer? As I recall, we had to turn back on three different occasions due to heavy rain and the subsequent muddy conditions.
As the airdate came rushing upon us, things in our small town began to get busy. The production company was from the UK and different technical people and producers began to arrive. Then the question was how to feed and look after all these folks while they worked on the broadcast. We were asked about catering and bathroom facilities…ah, there are none. Meals were prearranged with local establishments and a portable toilet was rented. Thankfully, our youngest daughter, Christine, was available to attend to all the food and beverage needs for the days of the shoot and did a masterful job.
Let me set the scene for you. The location was on a mountainside out in the middle of open range high desert, wild country, if you will, covered in sagebrush, complete with all the lizards and snakes one thinks of when one thinks of the desert. There is a long winding two-track road that leads up to the location. What’s a t
wo-track you ask? Well, it’s simply the two tire tracks made by your vehicle in the dirt. Even though it was only two miles to the location, it took 15 minutes to drive because of the ruts and bumps in the road. Driving up to the location you could see the satellite truck with its massive satellite dish extended up in the air, three tents with long tables and chairs all set out with food baskets and drink coolers, and a dozen trucks. Carefully placed, off to the side and downwind, was the portable loo. The entire crew had arrived three days early to coordinate and check and double-check all of the equipment that would make this huge undertaking possible. The end goal was to transmit a live signal from the back of a flying golden eagle to the satellite truck at our location and then beam that signal, via satellite, to the New York studio. Along with our signal, which was called “Eagle Oregon”, there were 14 other locations around the world filming various wildlife also transmitting signals to New York. Needless to say, this was a major undertaking.
Cordi and I had been preparing for this day, this moment, for months, including countless skype calls and emails, the whole nine yards. We have done enough TV work that we consider ourselves pros but I must admit that, as the 6:00 o’clock hour approached, we both began to feel the nerves creeping in. July 9th, here we go, showtime!!
Conditions…temperature 110F, 43C, no wind.
The opening shot was of me holding Widow at the edge of the canyon and, when given the cue, launching her off the edge. Both Cordi and I were wearing earpieces so we could hear our producer’s cues. Not only could we hear the satellite truck on the hill, we could hear everything that was going on in the studio in New York, which, I have to say, was very cool but did add to the adrenalin rush just a bit. Widow flew off the ledge and landed some 30 yards away. Perfect, that was just what they wanted, just a teaser. We had time to set up the next shot, so I drove Cordi and Widow further up the side of the mountain in our 4X4 cart. Cordi stood on the predetermined mark, holding Widow, waiting for me to get across the canyon to call her over. We could hear our producer telling New York, “This is Eagle Oregon, we are ready.” Then the producer cued Cordi to remove Widow’s hood and “Joe, start calling her”. Two, maybe three lure swings (come on baby, come to daddy) and Widow launched. She took a more scenic route, flying along the canyon wall, then turned and came straight into the lure. “Eagle Oregon, looks fantastic”, we heard over the ear bug. “Get set up for the next flight”.
This time Cordi held Widow on the highest point of the cliff. I was down, way down, at the bottom, so much so, that Cordi looked like a speck on top of the hill. For some reason, in practice, Widow had taken her time with this flight, don’t know why. It’s really the easiest for her, straight downhill in a stoop. “Eagle Oregon, we are ready” came over our ear bugs. “I’ll count you down, Cordi, starting at ten minutes out”, our producer said. The idea was that, since we all knew that Widow could take her time leaving Cordi’s arm, Cordi was going to take off the hood and Ali, our producer, would send a second cue when to roll her arm to encourage Widow to launch if too much time had gone by. The entire time we could hear all the locations transmitting to New York, all talking about what was happening at their sites; very fascinating. Now, suddenly, “Okay Cordi, we are 2 minutes out”, then “1 minute, I’ll count you in, Cordi”. Oh boy, all the work, all the prep, all riding on this last flight. “This is Eagle Oregon, we are a go. Cue Cordi, launch!”Just a sidebar here — our daughter, Christine, was back at the satellite truck and could see Cordi standing on top of the hill. She was texting with our other daughter, JJ, telling her all that was going on. “OMG, mom just dropped her stick! (Widow weighs in at 9.5lbs, a lot of weight to hold for long periods of time, so the stick was for support.) JJ, something’s happening!” Way down at the bottom of the canyon I started to swing the lure, calling Widow, who began her normal talking to me. Cordi rolled her arm and off went Widow in a full stoop down the hill. We could hear the people in our ear bugs cheering and congratulating each other over the success of the flight with no transmission interference, which was always a big concern.
In the end, Widow delivered every shot and under brutal conditions, even soaring up to 3,000ft; we could not have been more proud of her. The flights themselves were not difficult, but when you factor everything in… people, electric cables, antennas placed up and down the canyon in order to pick up the signal from Widow’s camera, and the temperature, it made for very difficult conditions. The sad part was, and this is TV, all the money spent, people flying in from everywhere, months of prep, both with Widow and the equipment, the New York people only used maybe 20 seconds. But that’s show biz!
I would like to say that Cordi and I are saddened that Peter will no longer be the editor of this magazine. It has been our pleasure to contribute articles about our adventures and hope that they were good reads. Peter, you’ll be missed!