I opened my eyes as I became conscious, it was still dark, at the back of my head I became aware of something scratching and fumbling. My brain and my audio receptacles tuned into one another, and my pupils dilated enough to allow the dim light to show me the image of my fellow tenter. I realised that he was desperately trying to vacate the shared tent, to do what one does, when the need arises in the early hours of the morning.
His attempts with the zipped exit were intended to be as quite as possible, it had failed, I was now awake, although I did not let on. Instead I pulled up the Ultimate sleeping bag and tried again to find a comfortable position on the hard ground. The night had come in quite chilly, and even though we had all gathered around a roaring camp fire that evening to enjoy good food, cowboy coffee and joviality, I had still felt the need to seek my polarpelt .
Just after midnight a few wise souls were making excuses and retiring, I too was bushed, it had been a long day in the wide open air and I was feeling a tiredness creeping into my bones. I took my opportunity and left those with a stronger constitution than I to progress from the beer and onto the spirits, it was time for me to hit the bag.
Some three hours later I am again awake, it was not Jon’s exit to blame, for had my sleeping pattern been normal, he could have ripped the tent from around me without stirring my slumber. The hard ground and my over-active mind reliving the past few days had all but prevented the lightest of sleep, now I would cat-nap until dawn, wondering what the new day would bring, how could it match yesterday.
As days go it had been a full one, thirty odd hours before I had just flown into Boise Airport, it was early evening but I was feeling the effect of loosing seven hours, and my body demanded the Motel bed after twenty three hours travelling.
The following morning my room resembled an untidy office as I rang round fixing dates on what had been a loosely planned schedule before I landed. My main priority was to contact Charles and Patty Browning who I had last spoken to on the phone on Thanksgiving Day. Then the exact dates had been a bit hazy, but the invitation was offered to join them and a few friends at camp on the Camas to hawk ducks and grouse.
Now Patty’s voice on the answer phone indicated they would be camped near Soldier creek just north of Fairfield, and gave a mobile number if the caller required more details. Well I bloody did, but I could not get an answer from the mobile for the best part of the morning. Finally Patty’s voice interrupted the phones ringing, she had moved out of the foothills that had been blocking the signal and was now out on the prairie hawking. I took her advice and cadged a lift from Boisian falconer Jon Neviaser who was driving down the following morning.
We grabbed a drive in breakfast and proceeded along Interstate 84 slightly later than planned. Driving with large cups of scalding hot coffee in one hand and egg baps in the other, whilst talking falconry and swerving to identify the hawks sat on the cross bars of the power poles as Redtail, Swainsons, Ferruginous or Golden Eagles made the trip memorable.
We had enormous difficulty translating Patty’s simple instructions on how to find the camp into reality, even the local Sheriff could not help. We had just returned to start at the Fairfield General Stores, when we both noticed that a Landcrusier that was been filled up at the gas pump and was carrying two fine hooded white gyr tiercel’s. We were getting warmer. It turned out to be Dan Thee, who gave us the welcome news that all the falconers were meeting at the Stores prior to heading out on the prairie hawking.
Within minutes we were surrounded by four wheel drives, dogs, falcons and too many introductions for my brain to take in, and we were back on the road in convoy.
It was ten a.m. on a normal September day in Idaho, the temperature was heading for its daily peak of the low nineties and the sky, with not a cloud to be found which stretched for miles, was a deep blue. The convoy stopped along a dusty road, we were just south of the Soldier mountains on the Camas Prairie.
Rob Holen was kitted up ready to fly his falcon, and proceeded out into the sage bush and cheat grass, the organisation was loose, not everyone was ready, some stayed with the vehicles. I headed out to catch up with the two or three falconers with Rob, who by now had removed the hood and held aloft his fine Gyr x Peregrine ‘Vapour’.
It leant into the slight breeze and pushed off the fist, a quick rouse and she was soon pumping into the sky. In no time I was having difficulty in keeping her in my 8 x 30’s, having reached her pitch she turned and headed over Rob who was now moving towards a pond. With no undulation in the ground I had not seen this pond, these guys had been here before. A Labrador and pointer set off for the water, and a group of small ducks flushed from the edge of the reed grass, I looked skywards, the falcon had teardropped and was stooping, I looked back to find the ducks, and just located them when the air was torn apart as the falcon levelled out and tapped the lead duck in the head. It dropped stone dead. She rolled over and landed with her prize.
Next to put a falcon to the sky was Darryl Barnes with a lovely tri-bred Prairie x Lanner x Gyr which was climbing almost from the fist and was soon just a speck in the heavens. The pattern followed as before from the same pond, it had a good area of cover with the surrounding reed bed, which held pockets of ducks who quite obligingly stayed put until flushed and enabled repeated flights all morning.
The dogs flushed a small group of ducks and the tri-bred was soon ripping though them, a very experienced falcon she knew that a head hit meant certain death in the air, her victim was a Shoveler duck and was soon in the bag.
Charles Browning soon had ‘Zorro’ his strikingly marked tiercel Gyr x Peregrine high over the pond, ‘Zorro’ like all the falcons flown was super fit by any standards let alone this early into the season. At one point I watched as Charles joined the dogs wading in the water to successfully flush ducks for his waiting teircel.
‘Zorro’ too took a Shoveler duck, these falcons made it look easy, and in doing so concealed the skill and experience of each of these falconer / falcon teams.
We left the pond to settle down and returned to the vehicles to quench our thirst and partake of a little food.
The heat of the day was reaching its peak, or at least I’d hoped it was. The discussion between the falconers reached a consensus that Charles would take his Golden Eagle ‘Messiah’ up into the foothills where he would hopefully find some lift, thus leaving the remaining falcons in the shade awaiting the cooler evening air in which 6 to continue flying on the flat prairie.
Watching these superb falcons been flown was an unexpected treat for me, but to experience the techniques of one of the few American eagle falconers, was the number one reason I had travelled to the west.
Charles carrying a hooded ‘Messiah’ climbed the hill, as I followed my footsteps disturbed the dry dusty soil. The gravelled lava rock in places was like marbles under your feet, together with the long woody stems of sage bush lurking close to the ground just waiting to trip the unexpected footstep, made me aware that I lacked the aid of my trusty thumb stick.
I was feeling the effects of a lazy summer, Charles on the other hand was finally tuned. I watched as he strode up the hill a little ahead of me, the muscles of his bare legs pushing like pistons as they brushed aside the sage. This was not the start of the season for Charles and ‘Messiah’, as they had kept flying throughout the moult and successfully taken many blacktails. We stopped at about three hundred feet up the hill, the view out across the prairie was dramatic and I was surprised to see about fifteen ponds scattered about in front of us. The one we had been working the falcons over that morning was by far the largest. As our breathing pattern returned to normal, Charles removed the eagles hood. The slight breeze that was blowing gave the eagle little advantage, as it came across and down the hill from behind us.
As Charles extended his arm the eagle spread his wings, dropping altitude down the hill he then circled a little way out only to return and land. I know the feeling well, on your own and with the elements, the eagle and luck on your side it can be the recipe for a red letter day. With the expecting assembled crowd down below and the wind as flat as a f**t. Things did not look as though the eagle was about to burn any primaries.
Once or twice the eagle did a circuit as though looking for lift, then as we were slowly moving down the hill ‘Messiah’ found a very gentle thermal of warm air. In seconds the efficiency of those large broad wings soon had the eagle above us, within a couple of minutes he was high above the hills.
Charles and I hurried down the hill to the flat prairie below, all the time stopping to locate ‘Messiahs’ position in the sky, who was now over the second hill ridge.
By the time we were both on the flat the eagle was just a speck, I stayed put whilst Charles moved out into the prairie, then he would locate ‘Messiah’ and I could then join him. The eagle was now so high he was lost to the naked eye, we had to hand over his position to one another before you could take down your binoculars and walk out into the prairie. We continued our progress in this relay fashion moving towards the larger pond, Charles was hoping for a stoop at ducks.
The eagle was a good mile away and hundreds of feet above a second ridge of hills, he was riding the air drafts back and forth for about three quarters of a mile along the ridge of hills. At one point a wild eagle joined him, and I became confused as which was our bird, Charles knew and was proved right when the eagle I was watching disappeared into the blue and ‘Messiah’ finally started to fly towards the prairie still keeping the height gained.
With my aching arms, a sunburnt face and hour later ‘Messiah’ was high above us and we were ready to flush the pond, by now everyone had joined us and a mass flush was on hand. Dogs, children and falconers pushed forward, a shout, someone called out “Messiah was stooping’, from what must have been well over a thousand feet came a stooping eagle in a style that any falcon would have been proud to match. A small flock of ducks had left the water and looked to be making for the next pond, one of them must have spotted the eagle and they all hit the water like a shower of stones. At about three hundred feet he terminated his stoop and levelled out, cutting across the sky with the accelerated velocity he had gained. Over flying the pond he turned then rolled over and stooped to the ground. As we made our way round the pond edge towards where ‘Messiah’ had landed, a wild eagle came low in from behind us and shot straight into where ‘Messiah’ was. Panic broke out as everyone rushed forward, mud splashed every where as most of us took the direct route.
As we approached to where the two eagles were it was ‘Messiah’ who took off first, we were almost on top of the wild eagle (a first year bird) before it left. ‘Messiah’ had taken a coot running across the mud flat, and to the young eagle ‘Messiah’ possibly reminded it of its parent, came in for a feed.
With no harm done, Charles called ‘Messiah’ down to a well earned reward.
The late afternoon was spent with Rob Holen and Jeff King’s gyr’s hawking sage grouse. As dusk crept in and rob picked up his young gyr on a grouse kill, the sound of coyotes howling to one another across the hills brought a superb finale to a magnificent days Hawking the Camas in America’s West.
ALL WORDS AND IMAGES ARE ©Alan Gates 1995.