Weekly Eagle Journal

Nat-Geo Shoot

July 28th, 2009 Posted in Nat-Geo shoot

Mini-meJH

May 10, 2009

JH 8.6 lbs
MM 7.5lbs

Today marks the first day that we started conditioning the two boys to go to Garden City, Kansas for filming with Nat-Geo. I started reducing their weight a week or so back and I felt that today they would both respond to the lure being pulled along by Cordi in the gator. With their weights still being a little high, even though both birds love me, I felt it would be smart to have a creance on them. They don’t love me that much yet!

JH was up first and despite his high weight I figured he go for the lure, which he did just fine on the first flight, flying the few yards and pounding the lure which is his style. He stepped off okay but was a little prissy about being hooded. This is necessary, however, because we need to reposition the lure and I do not want JH to see what we are doing that would not be good. On the second flight JH saw the lure moving and launched after it but, feeling his oats, he over flew the lure heading for who-knows-where but the creance stopped him. I had forgotten just how powerful eagles are as JH hit the end of the rope and I was jerked forward a step or two. The step up was not all that smooth as he pulled the meat free from the glove and I had to scoop him up.

Mini-Me’s two flights went fairly routinely. He can be a little challenging to hood; he just needs time to understand or, better yet, remember that nothing bad is going to happen to him. He still has bad memories from all his time spent in the hospital but I noticed a big change from starting him last year compared to this time. He has last year’s road trip under his belt which gave him a ton of confidence in me as well as himself.  One thing about MM — it does not matter if he is on a jack or the lure, I had better be ready with the food because he is coming at me dragging the lure or jack rabbit.

So, all in all, things went well..
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqhqISjDct8

May 14, 2009

JH 8.5lbs
MM 7.2lbs
Temp 65’
Wind 14 mph

JH on lure

JH on lure

The last few days the wind has been blowing pretty hard with gusts up to 30 mph. But that is fine because when we get to Garden City one thing is for sure, it will be windy.
I had planned on free flying both eagles today; however, they both still need their tail mounts replaced so the free flight will have to wait a few more days.
I kept them in the same routine, flying both eagles two times to the lure. All went well and I was able to keep all the lines free so nobody got tangled up.

May 16, 2009

JH 8.4 lbs
MM 7.3 lbs
Temp 60’
Wind 0 mph

Today the plan was to fly both birds free at the lure, which we did, and all went well. We flew them 3 times each at the lure, each time increasing the distance.

getting ready

Getting JH ready for free flight.

May 30, 2009

JH 8.4lbs
MM 7.2lbs
Temp 72’
Wind 1 mph

We are on the final countdown before we leave. I’ll fly them on Monday and we go on Tuesday. Both eagles are ready. They have become bored with the routine so it’s good that we are almost finished with the conditioning. Tonight I will have them sleep with the hoods on so they get used to it before the long drive.

The plan is to arrive on June 3 and start hunting on the 4th. We will be shooting on the 10th, 11th, and 12th.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9D_i2bLNAtE

June 2, 2009

Cordi and I loaded up everything we could think of for the trip — extra leashes, jesses, hoods, a back-up glove, outside perches, bath pans, another tail mount for the transmitters in case JH or MM drops a feather. I checked all the hand radios to see if they are in working order. I have been on many shoots and there is nothing worse than trying to figure out what the camera man or woman wants you to do via hand signals. We sat in the driveway going over the check list and, once satisfied that we had it all covered, we pulled out and headed for Garden City, Kansas, 1186 miles from our ranch in Vale.
We have traveled to Garden City a couple of times so we know that it is a two day drive. We try and make it to Cheyenne, Wyoming, stay the night, and make Garden City the following day in late afternoon. On June 3rd we pulled into the hotel between 5:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon, checked in, and kicked back, resting up for the next day.

With the film crew arriving on the coming Tuesday our job was to find areas that would look good on camera and have lots of jack rabbits. The plan was to fly and hunt the boys daily so they would get into game catching condition as we looked for good field possibilities. We had a pretty good idea where good fields are having been in the area many times before, but that was in the dead of winter. This is summer and everything is vastly different; more cover, more food. This could make finding jacks in flyable situations very difficult.

June 4, 2009

We drove over to a ranch that is roughly 25 minutes from the hotel and is 4000 plus acres big. Corn, wheat, milo and alfalfa are grown in large fields of several hundred acres each. We met the owner and he took us to some areas on his ranch that he thought could be nice to film and that had plenty of jack rabbits. The second Cordi and I took a look at this place we were, to say the least, blown away. The entire place was covered in wildflowers with the most dominate one being the blanket flower covering entire hillsides. Here’s Cordi sitting in some.

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It was simply the most amazing thing to see all those flowers, and not just the blanket flowers. There were blue ones, yellow ones, deep purple colored flowers, orange ones, and the prickly pear and barrel cacti all blooming. It was a feast for the eyes.

There are several unknowns going into this project. Weather is one of them with the threat of tornados lurking around the area, 70mph winds from thunder storms, and the golf ball size hail. The other issue is, with it being summer, the cover for the jacks is going to be thick. The crops are all growing at the max and the jacks could be very hard to find in the right places. The question is would we be able to find jacks in flyable situations and, more importantly, in filmable situations. Catching jacks in knee deep cover is certainly possible but that is not what the Nat-Geo people want. They need to see all the action, which means low cover. Garden City is considered high desert and, therefore, gets low amounts of rainfall so the natural grasses do not grow very tall. At least we had that working in our favor. But still, would the jacks remain in the corn or wheat and only come out during the night into the lower cover?  Asking the local ranchers it seemed that the jack numbers are up significantly in some areas and, according to them, jacks can be found in all types of cover. That was good news.

8:00am
My first goal was to get both eagles in the air and catching game, so we drove out to fields that we have hunted before. I didn’t want to waste time looking around until after both the boys had been hunted. We drove over to a small feed lot where, just to the east of the cattle, there is an area of rolling hills with small tea cup like bowls in it. This has been a great jack rabbit area in the past and it did not disappoint us. We wired up JH and walked into the field. We could see jacks moving far out into the cow pasture but where we were hunting there was better cover, ranging at the tallest to. The entire place was covered in wildflowers making for a spectacular area to film. JH launched on a jack that was downwind and off to the left, just missing it. We moved forward taking maybe 20 steps and another jack flushed straight away from us. JH launched and had it 30 yards out! So much for any worries of him being rusty.

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPFIqBgV474

this gives you an idea of the fields

Now it was MM’s turn….

MM’s role on this trip is to be the back-up to JH and, more importantly, to gain more hunting experience. MM’s health issues are well written about in the eagle journal so I will not go into them again but he does require time to get into the hunting mode. He just needs time to remember why he is out there, to see some jacks running, and then he comes around. But at first he is all over the place, going after anything that moves — butterflies, wind blown grass — he just launches without thinking due in part to his great desire to catch something.
Cordi and I moved to another field looking to put MM in the best spot possible. He likes long slips which in the beginning are not the best choice as his condition is low, so we needed to find him some shorter slips.  I went out into a dry field that had milo stubble and tumbleweed in patches, thinking that this field could be a good one to film in, plus I needed to find out if there were jacks in this kind on field. After an hour of walking I could safely say that no jacks were in the field and MM was not happy with my choice of fields either. Next we found a corner which is what the farmers call the end of a circle. Now, a circle is the area that a pivot covers, kind of like what the windshield wipers on your car do. The area the wipers clean would be a half circle and pivots can also go full circles or ¾ circles. However, pivots cannot get the corners of a square field and that is how corners are made. Corners generally have tumbleweeds and various grasses growing in them and that’s where you can find jacks. Cordi and I hunted 3 or 4 corners with MM taking several nice hard slips. And he did finally catch a jack just before it got to the open field. We spent the rest of the afternoon checking out other fields.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hq8EZjUlY-U

this will give you an idea of a corner

June 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9th

Over these 6 days Cordi and I found 5 fields that we felt would work both visually and that would produce enough jack rabbits. Some were 30 miles away in the small town of Sublette. Jackhammer caught a jack each day, sometimes very quickly, catching the first jack up. I did not multiple fly him at first as I felt I should slowly bring him up into catching more than one, thus building his excitement at the proper time. MM, on the other hand, I flew longer wanting him to get in the grove. He did get on a roll, took a jack three days in a row, and seemed to be settling into the hunting partnership with me.

June 10, 2009

First day of filming:

We rolled out of the hotel at 8:00am. My crew has changed as Cordi flew up to Calgary, Canada to see our oldest daughter ride at a Spruce Meadows Horse Show and Chrissy, our youngest daughter, flew in to help me with the boys. I would particularly need help when JH made a kill, which is when things could get real dicey. I will explain..
When I was contacted by the Nat-Geo people about flying an eagle for them one thing they wanted was for the eagle to be without cuffs. They felt that the sight of long eagle jesses hanging down from the flying eagle would not look good on camera. JH can be very aggressive and a real handful to handle and although most of the time he is well mannered other times, because he is a misprint, he can be difficult. When asked if I would remove the cuffs I thought long and hard about this idea and figured I’d give it a shot, not really knowing how I was going to handle him.
A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of meeting the sons of famed eagle trainer and film maker Morley Nelson, and they gave me a pair of snap on-and-off eagle cuffs that Mr. Nelson had used during the filming of his movies. I had a pair made that would do the same thing but looked just like the ones that JH is used to so there would be no change in appearance. I also had a pair made for MM in case he was called into action.
To be truthful I did not know how this was going to work. I was unsure that I could reach up and snap on the cuffs while JH was feeding without getting footed. I did not know if the snaps would hold when JH was acting up because, as I said, he can be very aggressive and would think nothing of footing me anywhere. I knew a couple of things though. JH would fly just fine without cuffs, sit on the fist, and do all the things I would want from him. Half the time I don’t hold the jesses when hunting anyway. It’s the transfer off game that had me concerned — that moment when I pick him up off the jack, he has finished all the reward, and is looking for more. That is the danger zone. That is where things could go real badly for me!
Knowing JH as I do, I did have an idea of how to put things a little more in my favor. For example, once I picked JH up off the rabbit I would have Chrissy cover the jack up to remove it from view. The last thing I needed would be for JH to see the jack there and go back on it. That would be a disaster. And I was hopeful that I could hold his outermost foot with my gloved hand, keeping him under control enough to hood him. JH hoods perfectly but it is when he thinks he should get more food that he can get aggressive. So those would be the two most critical times and, I must say, I was greatly concerned. The other thing I hoped would help is that JH will behave himself when someone else moves in on him. For example, if he is fussing about on the kill and not readily stepping up he will step up immediately if someone walks in on him. So, after covering up the jack rabbit Chrissy was to move in close and force JH to quiet down thus giving me the chance to either hood him or cuff him — hooding would be best.
We drove out to a field that would, in the end, produce the most dramatic flights on camera that I have ever seen. I was slightly nervous on the drive out. Removing the cuffs from my eagle was not something I ever dreamed I would do.

 

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In the first shot you can see the snap system with the cuffs on his legs. The other shot is a sight I thought I would never see — JH with free feet, on my glove, at hunting weight. He still has his Federal Falconry band on; that I would not remove.

We arrived at the field and the moment of truth was here; time to remove the cuffs!
Hunting in front of cameras is a whole different ball game. First off, you must figure out a game plan, such as where the cameras are going to be to give them the best opportunity to film all the action and how will they want me to work the areas that are within the range of their lenses. Once in the field hunting I must be in constant communication with the film crew. They will need to relocate from time to time as I work my way through the field, plus, there is stoppage time to change batteries, download flight scenes, and stuff like that. So, in a nutshell, I walk and stop and walk some more and stop all day long. JH is great with all this. He is content to sit on my fist and chill. The only problem is that when he sees a jack he’s off, whether everyone’s ready or not. Once I walked up on a sizable bull snake and JH went nuts trying to see it. Fortunately I was able to block any direct vision of the snake with my body and JH did not go after it.
So, with everyone in position Chrissy and I started working the field, looking for jacks. The thing is that any given step could flush a jack rabbit so Chrissy and I had to be on full alert because we would need to get out of the shot quickly. We did this by moving in the opposite direction of the flight which sounds way easier than it actually is.
JH had several flights and near misses and, for the most part, the action was not in the best place but that’s the way it can be as the jacks are not real concerned with all that. All they are interested in is getting away from JH and rightly so. Chrissy and I had worked to the outer edge of where the camera lens could reach and started to rework the area in front of the cameras. On many occasions we found that there were still rabbits hiding where we had already walked. Working our way in front of the cameras with Chrissy off my right side about 10 yards, a jack flushed between us out of nothing really, as the cover was only 1 to 2 inches tall. JH exploded off the fist and was closing fast. The jack was running straight away from us at high speed with JH coming up fast from behind. JH slammed into the jack and they both did a roll-over with dust flying and rabbit legs and eagle feet all in one neat flight. I hoped they got it and, judging by the high fives among the camera crew, I thought they had! Now came the hard part — the trade off. I made in to JH as I always do and had Chrissy ready to cover the jack. JH stepped up nicely enough and swallowed his reward. I wrapped my gloved fingers around his outer foot and reached for the hood. JH reacted and demonstrated his displeasure by getting all puffed up and footy. By holding his one foot all he could do was reach out with his free foot and hook me on the arm above where the glove ends. Chrissy moved closer and JH took the hood and quickly settled down. We took care of the jack and started to hunt once again.  Despite having two holes in my arm, things went well.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66Thow1AnaM

We continued to hunt the field and JH took two more jacks. We called it a day for him as we needed to have him ready for tomorrow.

We then turned our attention to MM. There was still a good area left in the same field we had just hunted so I took MM and started to hunt. The Nat-Geo folks decided to film MM despite the fact that I had not removed his cuffs. Chrissy and I walked out into the field and when I unhooded MM he went into his usual antics of launching at anything that moved. I did not release him knowing full well that a jack would be coming shortly. Off to my right a jack flushed and MM flew it well, just barely missing it, and landed on the ground. It had started to rain and the camera crew was pulling out plastic bags so they could cover their cameras, which was a good idea because the one camera, called the Phantom HD, is valued at $276,000, not including the lens! MM saw all the activity and, more importantly, the plastic bags and figuring there must be a jack rabbit in one of them, took off straight at the crew who were not totally sure of what to do! MM raked past the first camera and went in on the second camera man who put up a foot to stop the attacking eagle. MM then looked around, jumped up on an equipment bag and waited for me to arrive. So that went well!
Chrissy and I went to a different field and flew MM alone! We walked out into a bowl of native grassland with sage brush surrounding it on all sides. I had hunted this little area before and found jacks in good numbers there. We had walked most of the way through and turned in a crosswind direction when MM launched and was flying fast out to the end of the grass, heading into the sage. We could see the jack running up the small hill going into the sage brush. I said to Chrissy Why does he do that? He’ll never catch that one! MM flew higher and higher, stalled in the air about 50 feet up, did a wing-over and stooped, catching the jack rabbit!

 

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGTL4yXAIps

MM on his jackshows you what I know!

June 11, 2009

The game plan for today was to drive out to Sublette which is 30 miles south of Garden City. On a side note Sublette was hit by a tornado last night and more were expected the next few days so that was nice to know. The very field we flew today was hit that night with a tornado!
The difference between Sublette and Garden City is clear once you get there. Sublette is flat as a pool table whereas Garden City has some rolling hills. The area that we went to was 640 acres of CRP ground that is not farmed and has been allowed to go wild. The cover was perfect, just tall enough to have jacks but not too tall for filming.
The downside of Sublette is that the skyline is not the most attractive with lots of man- made junk around — power poles, houses, oil pumpers.. stuff like that. The film crew spent quite a while finding an angle to film that was free of clutter. I was anxious to fly this field as days before I had walked it and flushed numerous jacks in a short time. JH and MM both caught jacks here and I was careful not to over-hunt it, saving it for filming. I did, however, have a good feel for where the jacks were mostly likely to be and we focused on those areas.
With the crew all set Chrissy and I walked into the field with JH and started to work back and forth in front of the cameras. I was surprised that it took awhile to get the first flush. There’s always a big unknown.Had a pack of coyotes come through here last night? Or some dogs that cleared the field? One never knows. It was the better part of an hour, with us methodically working each section across the field, before we found the jacks. Nothing changed really. The cover was exactly the same but suddenly up popped a jack, then another and another and another, and we were in them big time. When JH was off after one, I couldn’t move, not even to turn my head, as that would cause another one to flush. I just called him back as quietly as possible. One of the great things about JH is that he returns to the fist quickly, many times not even landing on the ground. He just pulls up and comes back. This is huge because, with him in the air, the jacks will stay put. The flights came fast and furious; close slips, speed on speed. The jacks would explode 20 feet in front of us and JH would be instantly off the glove and cranking after them. In this short cover the jacks would get up to speed fast, in full burn outs, but JH would overtake them like a freight train. When he is this dialed in they have little chance. He took 4 jacks in a row and, with the rain picking up, we called it a day. That was fun!

June 12, 2009

Yesterdays rains had passed and today brought clear skies and sunshine so we decided to stay in Garden City and hunt the beautiful rolling hills covered with wildflowers. JH needed more time as we hunted late yesterday and, although he did not get a full crop, he did, in the course of catching 4 jacks, get a lot of food. I knew he would hunt a little later today. It was just that as his weight comes up, which it is bound to do after flying many days in a row and catching jacks each day, the less tolerant of the cameras he gets. So that would be the only issue. I do not weigh either bird. Knowing JH and MM as I do I can tell when they are ready. Plus, frankly, I’d fly them anyway. If either bird would have shown any signs of being weak or anything abnormal, I would put them on the scale for sure, but that was not the case.
Therefore, the morning was taken up getting all the shots, called B roll that are needed to set the story — background shots of JH’s feet, head shots, stuff like that. All the while JH was getting more and more ready to fly. After a short lunch break we headed for the hunting area despite nine days in a row of flying and taking, up to this point, 16 jack rabbits. JH was showing all the signs of being ready to go. He foots the perch and starts to pump up and down in what looks like an effort to pull the perch apart. The minute I touch his foot with the glove he is on it and then starts his pumping thing again which now looks like an effort to pull my arm off!
With everyone set I walked out into the field. Chrissy was back with the camera crew helping them with instructions to come running when a catch was made. The first two flights were wonderful. JH was, again, dialed in. It is the last flight that I will try and describe as best I can.

The camera crew was up on a small hill that overlooks a beautiful tea cup bowl. All I can say is that it is what paradise would look like, to me anyway. Bright green lush grass with blanket flowers everywhere and other flowers of blue, yellow, white, pink, and orange — a feast for the eyes. I don’t know what kind of sage brush it is but it is very delicate and a wonderful bluish-green color. It looks like a well thought out planted garden and on top of that jack rabbits, box turtles, bull snakes, and lizards abound.

 

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I had walked way around, 100 yards or more, working my way so I could walk straight at the cameras giving them the best opportunity for a flight. I started my way into the field and jumped a jack which did not cooperate at all and ran over the next hill with JH hot on its tail. Fortunately he missed and returned to the fist. I moved closer into the zone that is the most preferred distance for the cameras. I had just entered the zone when a jack flushed off on my left, running across the cameras. JH just missed it and as he was returning to me another jack flushed and ran off. Now I was thinking…. 4 jacks in this small confined space, that could be all she wrote. I radioed the crew and said I would work this area a little more hoping that there could be one more, but that we might have to relocate. I took a few more steps and turned to go back when I saw a large male jack rabbit laying flat up against a sage bush. Just as I completed my turn JH spotted the jack as well and the jack realized he needed to get out of Dodge and was up and moving out. JH exploded off the fist and closed quickly. The flight was going from left to right and I was back peddling as fast as I could to keep from being in the shot. Just as the jack was getting to the top of the small ridge JH came crashing in, slamming into the jack with speed.
Back at the trucks we were shown the flight and it was the most spectacular slow motion flight I have ever seen. Shot at 400 frames a second with the Phantom HD camera, I could see each feather bend and move as JH closed on the rabbit. When I hear the name National Geographic I expect to be amazed and the stuff they shot did not disappoint!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCRtGBMNvM0

Epilogue:

Each night Chrissy and I sat in our hotel rooms watching the weather channel, counting the tornados coming into the area and hearing that they hit the very same fields we just flew in. That was not fun. Every day as we drove back to the hotel we could see the thunderstorms building up and knew what the night would bring — golf ball size hail, 70mph winds, flash floods.. My plan was to stay and hunt the boys thru Monday and drive up to Denver, meeting Cordi, and the two of us would drive home. Chrissy was going to fly out of Garden City on Sunday. But the thought of staying more nights glued to the weather channel,  hoping not to get killed by one of many different weather related things that Garden City has to offer was, to say the least, not attractive. We left Friday afternoon with the film crew, heading west, and Cordi flew to Boise.

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Driving back to the hotel …more thunderstorms!

I would like to thank the following people:

  • Brian Kellogg for making the snap on-and-off eagle cuffs. they worked great.
  • Mike Craig for making me the field jesses for both JH & MM. they worked perfect.
  • AmericInn, the hotel where we stayed. They went over and beyond the call to help me with all the things eagles need.
  • Mark Kilby for sending me his arm support which will extend my flying eagle days another 10 plus years, thanks Mark.
  • Renick Farms for allowing us to film and hunt on their ranch. And to Renegade who took time out of his busy daily schedule to show us his beautiful ranch.

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