Aralbai, eaglehunter
The Hunt.
by
Alan Gates.
First Published in the Falconers and Raptor Conservation Magazine. Issue 49.
Suddenly, I felt totally and utterly alone. Perched on the surface of an enormous pink granite boulder the soles of my Lundhag boots gave confidence as I hungered down on my heels.trained berkut
From my lofty view point high up the mountain a large vista of baron rock and dust lay out before me. As I scanned the rocks and cracks for any movement I felt as though my head was wrapped in cotton wool. Not a sound, not a whisper of wind, not a leaf or blade of grass to rustle,
nothing, absolutely not a living organism could I see.
As the minutes ticked by, the desolation enveloped me, I hoped my companions remembered where I had been left. Of course they would, already they had shown they knew every rock, every crevice, every canyon, and their sense of direction in this hard landscape was perfection, I was totally in awe. Still, I felt alone.

Mongolian berkutShe roused her feathers and nearly shook me off my perch, I lied, I was not entirely alone. One large leg stretched out, she clenched her foot and slowly withdrew it into her body feathers, at the same time shifting her body weight over the knuckles of my right hand.
My arm was engulfed in a large leather mitten called a Bijalai and I held her Ayak-bau, jesses, between thumb and palm. Her weight was supported on my knee as I squatted on my heels. She was a magnificent Mongolian Burkut, waiting patiently hooded on my right arm for the action to begin.
I had been left in charge of the vital element of the unfolding operation, Aralbai had withdrawn his arm from the Bijalai and laid it on the rock with his eagle still perched on it like it was a large branch. Through sign language he indicated that I should slip my arm into this large hollow tube, wait here with her for the flush, but only to slip her if our quarry bolted clear of the rocks.
In this harsh rugged landscape an eagle binding to quarry at high speed in confined rocky cover can easily break a wing or graze a foot off. With my instructions understood, he and the scareboys melted into the rockscape, their intention was to circumnavigate the mountain, lobbing rocks into likely crevices in the hope of disturbing our quarry, the fox.

EaglehunterIn this part of western Mongolia the red fox was particularly attractive, I was completely captivated by them. In the dry cold climate they grew a long bushy coat of golden red which blended with the pink granite rock and gave them a magical illusion of sudden appearance.
Fleet footed they float across the hard terrain and present a tough and agile adversary for a trained Burkut. In a good season an experienced Burkut could catch fifteen or twenty foxes, I hoped today we might catch one of them, but above all I hoped she would not harm herself on those jagged rocks below me.

The concentration was draining, constantly scanning the vast area my eyes began playing tricks, was that movement, is that shape alive or just a shadow. My left hand became twitchy, itching to strike the hood at the slightest imagined movement.
Sound, at last my ears were working again. I heard the occasional crash of tumbling rocks as the Steppe horseapproaching scareboys launched boulders over precipices. An echoing sound as the rocks exploded on impact, scattering debris for dozens of yards. Voices could now be heard as they growled and shouted to spook their quarry, its direction was to my right, they had managed to circle the mountain.
As if it had popped out of the solid rock, right in front and below me was a fox. His black coal eyes bore straight at me as I struck the hood from the Burkut. At an instant she saw him and launched forward, wings closed to her body she pushed off my arm and out into the air. With her wing butts slightly protruding she dropped towards the now feeling fox, hell she was going fast.
His long bushy tail swirled this way and that as he swerved between boulders far larger than he stood. The Burkut burned right up his tail, I could see her large feet swing forward as she covered the last twenty yards before impact, the fox was kicking up dust as his back legs powered him down a tight channel in a flat rock shelf. The Burkut, to my relief pulled out of the dive, she lifted about twenty feet above the channel peering down looking for the fox to emerge, when he didn’t she peeled back and landed.
Mongolian horsesAralbai appeared and I excitedly relived the flight enthusiastically animating as much as I could without jumping off the cliff myself. He got the gist, and threw his arms around me and patted my back. I felt he was pleased that the strenuous effort he and his friends had put in to flush a fox in this enormously difficult country had made their guest so ecstatically happy. The fox evaded our efforts, maybe he would play our game another day either way the flight was etched deep into my memory.
My dappled grey horse was still patiently waiting where I had dropped her reins, I climbed into the saddle and wound my way down the mountainside. We regrouped and proceeded to the next mountain, once again to try and extract a fox from solid rock.

ALL WORDS AND IMAGES ARE ©Alan Gates2001.