Reaching For the Sky


By Joe Atkinson
Vale, Oregon, USA

Published in International Falconer magazine issue 34 2009

For years I have flown golden eagles hunting them in a verity of ways but I have always wanted to fully explore the possibilities of flying an eagle from a waiting on position, like my falcons. I have over the years had many eagles that would go up and being passage birds they would when given the opportunity catch a thermal and speck out coming down with tremendous speed and power. How then could I get an eagle to go up with regularity and come over my in the manner of a falcon, that is the question that is what I want to accomplish. Eastern Oregon is perfect of this type of flight miles and mile of treeless hills and mountains covered in sage brush perfect to let an eagle go as high as it wants.
Passage golden eagles already know how to soar and hunt and catch game because they have already done all that on their own so the trick is to get one to stick around and hunt over me. When an eagle goes up they really go up 1000’s of feet it is amazing how high they go and from there they can see miles and miles in all directions so looking down at me a small dot running around like an ant must seem well boring.

Just like training a falcon when they are at the height you want reward them  by flushing game swinging the lure something that lets the bird know hey when I do this something good happens, eagles are know different. But trying to flush something OK anything under a waiting on eagle is very difficult,  in fact I never thought much about it send in the dogs and things flush. And by things I mean pheasants, chucker, and jack rabbits all game that eagles catch in the wild. And that’s the key in the wild because here in Eastern Oregon we have eagles flying around everywhere just about anytime you can see and eagle hunting something. What does this mean it means that anything that is on the food list for a golden eagle lives in fear because they are hunted all day every day , so when my eagle is waiting on over a given area nothing will move, and if they do flush they go just out of the reach of the dogs and that is it, wild game is not going to show itself to the eagle. This presented me with a big problem how could I reward my eagle for doing the right thing, sure I gave her the lure but that is not my goal. I wasted to my flights having my female golden directly over my head not being able to produce something for her which resulted in her not paying attention to me and wandering off. Wandering off for an eagle means finding her twenty five miles away the next day not something I want to repeat as I found her up in a very steep canyon half way up a shear cliff. Thankfully she came down and saved me the pain of having to find a way up the cliff I did however have to carry her the mile or so back out the canyon which on that day was the meeting place for every rattle snake in Oregon.  Note too self rattle snakes get very angry when you’re carrying an eagle and they tend to strike.

It took me more time than I care to admit to figure out that flushing game under my waiting on eagle was going to be very hard, I needed more flushing power which would make what ever I was trying to flush more afraid of what’s on the ground then in the air because screaming and running around does not work. I made the decision to add dogs to the team thinking they could create enough fear that something would flush. This in itself does not seem like any big deal except that I have never hunted any eagle with dogs well I did try it once way back with my first eagle. I was walking down a dirt road with my female golden eagle and four dogs looking for jack rabbit slips. A ground squirrel flush and was make a bee line to it’s hole off went the dogs and I launched the eagle.  As I stood there and watched I could see eagle and dogs were all going to arrive at the squirrel all at the same time, with one swipe my eagle snagged the squirrel and with the other foot tried to snag a dog! Even though eagle and dogs had all been around each other and I had flown them all together before things changed after that day and my dogs would not go out in the field with me and the eagle anymore.  So the vision of one of our sweet dogs getting stabbed by and eagle has remained with me for years. I have had eagles take coyotes so I know full well what an eagle can do to a dog. With all that said these are desperate times and I need more flushing power so after considering some very important factors such as this female eagle is not aggressive toward dogs at all and my dogs have a very healthy respect for eagles I moved forward none the less I was very careful as passage eagles and dogs do not generally get along.

So I added my dog’s in the hope that they along with me could get something to flush under my eagle, so far the addition of dogs has helped as they do flush game particularly pheasants. However not flushing game under my eagle for so long a period of time created a new problem, she was not looking at me so on the few times we actually did flush something my eagle did not react  and talk about frustrating! Fortunately here in the USA we can use bagged game to aide in the training of falconry birds and by using baggies as we call them I could create a situation for my eagle that she would see game flushing under her at the exact moment when she came over. I picked a particularly large flat bench area that offered a good area to create a hunting situation and one that I could see in all directions. Like all falconers do I was trying to anticipate things that could go wrong, like how far can female golden eagles fly with a pheasant and if she is going to carry the pheasant do I want major canyons around that she can fly across and more importantly canyons that I would have to carry her back a cross to the truck.

With two changes in the program the addition of my dogs and the use of bagged pheasants created new questions, the first major question was what happens when like the ground squirrel with my first eagle when dogs and eagle all arrived at the same time. Well what is going to happen when dogs and eagle arrive at the pheasant at the same time would she attack them, would the dogs get to close while the eagle was on the kill? Both my dogs are trained to find my falcons and set down next to them while they are on a kill and wait fro me to arrive this has proven very useful keeping large raptors partially eagles from coming in on my falcons. But now the bird they are keeping away is now the bird on the kill they must tread carefully.

The bagged pheasants would as I have said serve me in a couple of ways both being very important if I am going to reach my goal of flying my eagle from a waiting on position. However they did bring there own set of problems the first being that even though these pheasants are extremely wild acting they are not close to wild birds and simply do not have the drive to fly like wild birds. With and eagle up at 4,000 feet plus these domestic pheasant could not stay in the air long enough to be caught in the air and that’s what I want in the air strikes not pheasants getting caught on the ground. I have had to adjust my timing on when I should launch the pheasant if the eagle is too high the pheasant will burn out and land if the eagle is to low nothing will flush short of setting the hillside on fire.  One method that has proven successful with this eagle is to show her the lure which brings her pitch down to a more workable height than launch the pheasant.

Typically the flights go like this, I drive to the top of a large mountain that has huge areas of flat ground on the south side, on the east and western sides it fall offs rather sharply this creates thermals which eagles love and my female is very good at finding. I launch her off my fist and she fly’s up to a mile or more out into the valley searching for rising air. Once she finds what she is looking for she goes up sometimes out of sight. She can be counted on to come over and drop down low enough so I can see her but this is still very high to high truthfully.  I have the dogs at the ready and as soon as she is directly over head I send in the dogs looking for the wild flush, so far as of the time of this article I have not flush anything wild under her since I started the using bagged game. But what has happened is that my eagle is now coming over me and looking for something to happen around me, that is a positive thing at least now I would hope that when I do get something flushed under her she should react. She has taken to date about  half a dozen bagged pheasants launched in various situations that where set up to mimic wild flushes with only a few resulting in the pheasant being caught on the ground which does happen while hunting so I can live with that.
Journal entry;

Widow female passage golden eagle
Temp  72’
Wind 3 mph SSE
Wt. 9.9lbs

I drove out into the vast sage desert which goes on forever it’s more like an ocean really as far as I can see is sage brush. Driving out into the *BLM I get the feeling I could drive forever and never cross my own tracks. But that will have to wait for another day.

I found a good looking spot to plant a pheasant in cover to flush under Widow when the time is right. I attached the tail mount transmitter check to see if all was in order and walked away from the truck and launched her into the wind. Widow flew along a ridge line and landed, roust and jumped into the air and caught a thermal and was being pulled up into the heavens in a matter of seconds she was 1000’s of feet in the air and still climbing, I stood and watched her six foot plus wing span shrink down to the size of a pin dot.  More than a mile out and I’m not sure how high up she broke off her climb and set her wings and started to come over to where I was standing with my dogs. She is by all accounts way to high I can barely see her, I pulled out the lure and started to swing it in an attempted to bring her down to a more work able pitch. Widow folded up and began a spectacular stoop straight down! I waited until she was roughly the size of a pigeon and picked up the lure which caused Widow to break off her stoop, and I sent in the dogs. They already knew there was a bird in the weeds so it only took a few seconds and sure enough out flushed the pheasant.  I had lost sight of Widow so I watched the pheasant rise up and fly gaining height as it went. The first thing I noticed was the sound not of the pheasant but the sound of speed, the sound of something big moving fast through the air.

With the pheasant in a full burn wings just a blur Widow came in over taking it with ease delivering a blow that sent feathers flying in all directions and sent the pheasant falling to the ground like a stone. With a quick wingover Widow was on her pheasant and I was standing there as feathers where still settling down to the ground with my mouth open in disbelief of what I just saw.

I have not reached my goal yet of actually hunting wild game with and eagle over my head, I’m close but not quit there yet. Seeing a eagle stoop is one of the great spectacles of the natural world. Something that will keep me working for my goal and reaching for the sky.