Lauren’s first fox

Lauren reports from Mongolia:

I’m amazed at how fast training progresses here! I’m about 150 km south of Olgii, outside a town called Daluun near the Chinese border. The falconers in this area only fly passage eagles, and luckily, its been a great year for fox. You won’t believe, but I’ve already seen eleven fox caught by eagles! When entering new eagles, they often use a make-eagle. The make-eagle system works well, I think. The slips are often so distant, the flights so big, that it helps focus a new eagle on that object scooting along the horizon, and what the game is, when another eagle is pumping hard after it. There hasn’t been any crabbing at all – the first one grabs the head and then the second takes the body. Interestingly, when my eagle was first flown with the make eagle, she would mirror the other eagles movments, pitching up high and coming crashing down. Now she’s flying on her own and is developing her own style. In general, the fox is killed, the eagle fed the tongue, and then traded for a hare leg.

Training was very simple – riding the horse was a form of manning in the beginning. The eagle was so focused on keeping its balance that it didn’t worry about other things, like bating. We called to the fist, then to the lure, then to the fist on horseback, and finally used a bagged fox that another eagle had caught to gauge her attitude toward foxes. She took it easily. The first week of hunting we used the make eagle – they took three foxes together, my eagle always coming in second but I think learning a great deal. The second week we flew her alone. She had some close calls right off the bat – knocking the stuffing out of a fox but failing to hold it.

Her first kill happened like this: The fox was running in a straight line maybe two hundred yards off. She left the glove (we had a bit of height, maybe 50ft off the ground, not much) and tried for a straight-grab. The fox dodged to the side at the last second but she didn’t hit the ground and was able get back her speed and try again. This repeated itself and then the fox ran around a gigantic stone that was on the ground. It was an oddly placed stone on the steppe, and was maybe thirty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. At this point my eagle pitched upward, looked down over her shoulder as the fox circled, and then dove and collided with it as it made it around the stone. It was particularly fun because this land was fairly flat, so it was easy for me to spur my horse to a gallop and race over there. I felt really intrepid! Usually its steep hillsides and I’m just plodding along downhill to try and reach the eagle.

The second kill was the opposite – we were on a precarious mountainside named “difficult stones”. The eagle jerked like it saw something so I released her (I prefer out of the hood, but you get many more flights if you don’t) – she flew quite far, pumping and serious, out of sight to another side of the mountain. We chased and found her halfway the mountainside down on a fox. It was incredibly steep though, and not real ground – all loose stones and sand. I was terrified! I had to get off my horse and walk it down – I fell constantly and was absolutely exhausted by the time I reached my eagle. She had killed the fox by then and so I quickly traded. I wish I’d seen the flight, though!

She’s been lucky and has only had minor bite marks (by a big fox she grabbed that broke loose) but my teacher’s eagle really got some nasty bites. It hasn’t affected her enthusiasm for killing foxes, but it looks very bad and I’m hoping they don’t get infected.

 How’s New Mexico this time of year? I really miss you guys and, certainly at times, the comforts of home. It can be quite tough out here, sometimes depressing, but I do love it and feel like I’m learning worlds.
PS – Canat talked with Mongolian officials, and I can export my eagle if I’d like!! Well, at least the paperwork is possible on this end.

–Lauren

Next, photos!

Such an unnecessary loss

Press accounts tell us this week that PacifiCorp, which does business locally as Rocky Mountain Power, has agreed to cough up $10 million for the killing of golden eagles in Wyoming through electrocution. Although the federal court case against the company was for 34 violations of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, according to the Associated Press, Rocky Mountain Power admitted that at least 232 golden eagles were killed in six western Wyoming counties in less than a two-year period. That is absolutely stunning. Think about it – 232 golden eagles, dead.

Under the federal lawsuit settlement agreement, according to press accounts, the company will pay $510,000 in fines, $900,000 in restitution, and spend $9.1 million to repair/replace/retrofit its equipment to protect raptors from electrocution in Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went after PacifiCorp because the company claimed it was taking action to protect raptors, but it really wasn’t. Now that will change, since the company is on probation for five years as it works to correct the dangerous situation for raptors in the state long known to host the highest wintering concentration of golden eagles in the nation. Research in the mid-1970s indicated that more than 26,000 goldens wintered in Wyoming.

One PacifiCorp spokesman says that wintering goldens began concentrating in an area outside of Worland, Wyoming, in response to a booming jackrabbit population, and once the magnitude of eagle mortalities became obvious, the company began work to retrofit the power facilities.

The thing is, power companies have been doing this retrofitting since at least the 1980s. Why the heck it has taken so long to get it done in this extremely important area for eagles flabbergasts me.

I guess we’re lucky. Wyoming hosts a thriving golden eagle population, and even though it appears golden populations are on the decline in states throughout the West, eagles here seem to be holding their own (despite the big loss to PacfiCorp).

Hawkwatch International is a fine organization devoted to long-term monitoring of raptor populations. Of all the Hawkwatch monitoring sites in the West, only western Wyoming’s Commissary Ridge site showed increases in golden eagle numbers in fall 2007 over the long-term average. At that site, located about an hour southwest of our ranch, 328 goldens were counted, a 24-percent increase from the long-term average at that site. The timing of the count should have provided for monitoring of a resident population, not our winter migrants.

There is some indication that golden eagle populations fluctuate with our jackrabbit and cottontail rabbit populations, which experienced substantial population booms in the mid-2000s, but it appears the jackrabbit population in western Wyoming has crashed this year. We’ve also suffered nine years of drought, with this year providing our first decent moisture in a decade. It could be that we’re about to see a decline in eagles, with the crash of a primary prey species.

Recent research has attempted to present a West-wide population estimate for golden eagles. The research, conducted by Western EcoSystems Technology of Cheyenne, Wyoming and published in 2004, indicated that Wyoming has 4,174 pairs of breeding golden eagles, the highest of any state and nearly half of the known breeding population in the West.

But one of my favorite research citations involves a survey conducted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel in the early 1970s. FWS personnel recorded their golden eagle observations as they went about their duties, driving, year-round. The number of golden eagles observed per 1,000 km ranged from 1.2 in Arizona to 10.4 in Wyoming. The more recent WEST research involved aerial surveys for goldens, and detected 12 eagles per 1,000 km flown in Wyoming during late August/early September survey efforts. That’s a lot of goldens.