Owning the sky.
My sincere apologies to those who have been following Lecter’s story, I hope you will forgive the length of time since the last write up, the first winter is a very busy time when you’re raising a young Eagle. Thankfully the hunting season has now ended and I can afford some time to catch up on some of the commitments I’d been de-prioritizing for a while.
I think I left off where Lecter had caught his first rabbit. If only I had known just how easy that his first kills, would look a few months down the line.
A week after getting him entered some coolant pipe on my car engine started to leak resulting in an overheated engine in peak hour traffic on the A64.
The month’s worth of wages down the drain to replace the engine was bad enough, but without a 4×4 vehicle, getting a young Eagle to the farm on a daily basis proved more trouble than it was worth.
I’d decided early on that I would only change one thing on any one day and if he takes badly to it we end the day there. He’d learned from an early age to be put into his travel box in the car, closed off in a darkened space where he feels safe and then the car moves around. First time I put him in the box and then tried to pick the box up he went crazy. Took a week to get him used to being moved in the box so I could get him in the car and then as soon as we pulled off he freaked out cause he was facing the wrong way. Long story short he took several big steps sideways and backward in his development. Worst of all he learned he didn’t have to fly to get fed and all that natural drive to chase and catch food, I had to somehow resurrect after 5 weeks of sitting around idle.
Most eagles used for falconry in the UK are trained to fly off the fist out of a hood. In my opinion, if this is all the bird is taught it will learn to chase whatever it sees when the hood comes off its head.
I don’t have a problem with someone else training their bird that way, however I personally feel some of the methods used to achieve it are distasteful, technically illegal and would not produce the mentally grounded bird I want Lecter to grow up to be.
I wanted him to learn that he has to give everything he’s got in order to catch prey but I also wanted him to understand where his natural strengths lie.
With an open invite to fly Lecter on the Balmoral estate whenever the royal family are not in attendance, I decided I would take the risk of allowing Lecter to learn to hunt from the soar.
So began the long process of getting Lecter back to flying after a 5 week layoff. First getting him to go in his travel box without a fuss, then convincing him he needed to fly away from me.
I started on a hill with a wind blowing up the slope and repeatedly threw him into the wind. For days he would simply land on the floor a few meters away from me, I would simply go and pick him up and chuck him into the wind again and again and again, and every time he would fly a little further before landing. If he did something that made him gain height, I would give him food, if not I picked him up and threw him into the wind, yet again. Eventually he figured out that if he stayed in the air, I would stop picking him up and throwing him into the air. I rewarded him for anything that showed an improvement either in the length of time he stayed in the air or how high he flew.
Soon he figured he got food for going upwards so he started going off the fist into the wind, climbing, sometimes vertically into the air and then coming straight back down, expecting to get food.
Once he went up, I stopped feeding him for doing it but he kept going up in the hope he would get food. I discovered that Lecter would repeat pretty much any action that I showed him food in return for doing. As soon as he stopped coming straight back down after climbing, started trying to circle round I would reward him for doing that, every time leaving him to fly a little longer.
We developed a kind of acknowledge now, reward later relationship where I could shout “Good Boy” and show him food and he would “know” that he’d earned that reward and would get it when he came back, didn’t matter how long it took him to come back.
I would leave him to fly around and do what he wanted, calling him back when he’d gone as far as I want him to fly away from me.
Every day I was waiting for him to fly directly overhead from me, it was the most incredibly difficult thing to get timed right and of course, I completely messed it up the first time he did it.
He’d circled round downwind from me and was just coming overhead into the wind, exactly what I wanted him to do. In my excitement to get the lure and food out, I failed to notice that he’d turned and gone back downwind, a second before I showed him his food and shouted “Good Boy”
Of course there was no way to correct my mistake once it was made, he came down from about 150 meters and hit the lure with intent. The damage was done, he’d spent nearly a week trying to earn that big treat and I’d given it to him for doing the wrong thing.
For four weeks, I would let him go, he would circle round, gain height, come overhead of me, and then turn downwind trying to earn a reward again, DOH!!!!
Day after day, the same thing, I just could not get him to stay in one place and wait for his reward to come. Over and over he would come into position and then turn downwind, completely ruining everything we’d put together. Eventually in desperation I decided to just beat around and see if I could flush something, even if he’s not in position, in the hope he would figure out that things can appear any time I’m beating and its best to just hang about up there in case, kind of a reverse waiting on training.
Eventually, more by luck on the part of the weather, we got a steady 30 odd mph wind that would blow him way off course if he turned downwind, I guess it was easier to stay facing into the wind overhead, I threw his baited lure, let him have his treat (first one he’d earned in 4 weeks), put him in up in the air again and he went straight up and waited on. Called him to the lure again, let him feed then put him up a third time and started beating the bracken like a man possessed. Wish I could say I succeeded but we had a good foundation to work from.
I spent weeks beating through the bracken, Lecter proving he could catch just about every rabbit that got up in front of us. I tried working a ferret to bolt rabbits while he was on the soar but it took a few ferrets before he figured out he was supposed to kill the rabbits. I don’t know if it was me quite unceremoniously taking what was left of the ferret away from him without rewarding him or the fact that he could smell how bad he stank every time he caught one. I suspect it may have been the smell because the last one he killed he simply crushed to death and then threw it down on the floor without even trying to eat it.
He was gaining valuable experience flying in Yorkshire’s conditions but I need to see how he would cope on the Scottish Moors.
Our first trip in November turned out to be an incredibly steep learning curve for both of us. He’d caught his first hen pheasant from the soar on the Thursday before I set off so I was very confident he would be able to hold his own up there.
The six hour trip to Ballater was a small price to pay for the experience of driving through the highlands to get there J
The people I met, some of the most generous and honest men I have ever encountered.
Lecter’s first time on the moor, my poor little baby boy encountered winds that seemed intent on flipping him upside down every time he tried to fly. We walked to the top of the hill, I cast him into the wind, he tried to circle got blown downwind and crash landed in the heather when he got caught in a downdraft. I went and fetched him, took him back until we met the guys who had worked their way towards the two of us down the hill.
Lecter stood on the fist watching the first hare that flushed run uphill for a few seconds then tried to chase it and flew straight into the swirling air above the moor and practically got flipped upside down, again. He came crashing down a short distance ahead, this time soaking wet.
I was desperately hoping to try and get a photo of Lecter flying with Lochnagar in the background but with the wind when we got to that side of the moor the wind was so strong I’d have ended up fetching him miles away on the other side of the loch.
We decided to fly on some less challenging land on the opposite side of the river Dee, where Lecter was able to cope a bit better with the wind, he tried a few times to get up on the soar but he just couldn’t find the lift and was too inexperienced to cope with it when he did.
The trip to Scotland gave me the feedback I needed to improve his flying to the standard where he would be able to fly in Scotland.
The UK’s wettest winter on record gave me the storms I would need to get him there. When everyone else was at home sheltering from the weather, Lecter and I were out flying, in up to 80 mph winds. For the first time ever, I avoided nice weather days and took him flying only when it was bad.
By the middle of January 2014 he was not only coping with storm strength winds, he’d started catching quarry under those conditions.
Its been an incredible experience to watch him learn to cope with the toughest conditions nature could throw at him. I’ve done a few rough calculations and the piece of ground we fly on is roughly 7 miles wide from the top of the one hill down the valley and up the other side of the hill. In anything above 30 mph winds, he can cover that distance in about 5 – 8 seconds. He can spend over an hour in the air looking for quarry and never need to flap his wings fully. He even learned how to alter the lift on his wings to allow him to face into the wind at an angle to observe the ground below when the wind is not quite in the ideal direction.
I am assembling a compilation video of Lecter’s early training flights, I had hoped to have it ready for this diary but alas I’ve simply not had the time to complete it.
I think we will explore quarry in our next instalment.