Nomads of the Summer and the Golden Eagle Chicks

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Master eagle falconer releasing his golden eagle with a beautiful blue sky

We went back to Mongolia in June of 2016 to continue the filming of our documentary called “The Twelfth Eagle”. The two main reasons we went back in the summer were to watch Ardak release his current eagle of 6 years for good, and watch him capture a new golden eagle chick to train.

Dr. P in front of  statues of the four Beatles in Ulan Bataar Mongolia

The capital, Ulan Bataar, at 70 degrees F in the summer is much better than -20 degrees F in the winter!

There were three of us this time- Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Palazzolo, and Mary. Mary was our assistant photographer, and her main job was backing up our video and pictures each day, flying the drone (nicknamed Quasi), and lugging all our camera equipment half way around the world.

Dr. P and his camera crew posing in the mountains of Mongolia

An early morning rise to get the right sun for photography

Just like on our winter trip, the eagle doesn’t care about our script, so filming is best described as seat-of-the-pants. When an unplanned video opportunity presented itself there was no time to grab a tripod, and I used the nearest available body.

Dr. P using his guide as a tripod to hold a telephoto lens still to film golden eagles

This is Bota (it means baby camel in Kazakh), our assistant guide and part time tripod

The Mongolian countryside was just as beautiful in the summer as in the winter. Those blue skies go on and on. For this summer trip we will be in the high mountains, when the rains bring green pastures and plentiful grass for livestock grazing.  We spent most of our time at between 7,000- 8,000 feet.

The lush green grasses of summertime in western Mongolia with beautiful snow capped mountains in the distance

Even though it is June, there is still plenty of snow in the mountains

Summertime on a dusty dirt road in the mountains of western Mongolia along a river

Here is the dirt road we took to Ardak’s summer home

Wintertime on a frozen road in the mountains of western Mongolia along a river

This is the same road in the winter, when the water in the river spilled over onto the road and froze

Instead of crossing frozen river-highways we crossed rapidly flowing streams.

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You need to pay attention to where you are sitting when taking these photos if you don’t want to spend the rest of your day in wet jeans.

Horse jumping stream in the western Mongolian countryside

This is horse country, and you will see plenty of them driving to Ardak’s summer home

Running horse in the western Mongolian countryside

They belong to the nomads who ride them daily

Beautiful white horse galloping past us

Beautiful white horse galloping towards us

This horse will be in our documentary movie

After 4 days of travel from California we made it to Ardak’s summer home. We had not seen him or communicated with him for 4 months, so there was plenty of catching up to do regarding our documentary and his eagles.

Master eagle falconer with his golden eagle perched on his glove

Ardak, with eagle attached to his arm of course, was waiting for us upon arrival

Kazakh nomad of western Mongolia smoking a hand rolled cigarette

He celebrated our return by immediately lighting up!

Golden eagle perched on a master falconers glove showing her eagerness to go hunting

Even though the eagles do not hunt in the summer anywhere near as much as the winter, his eagle was keen to hunt

The lush grasses from the summer rains and almost constant sun gives the livestock plenty of food to fatten up for the brutal winter. It is in these high country valleys that the nomads spend their summer.

An early morning birds eye view of the area

Yak's grazing on the lush green grasses of the summer mountains in western Mongolia

The Yaks graze freely in the unlimited grasses

Nomad lady milking a Yak

With all that nutritious grass the Yaks and cows produce plenty of milk

With the abundance of milk they would make some of their winter food.

Nomad cheese called kurt drying in the sun

This is their cheese drying on a rack, the cheese called kurt that we ate during our winter trip

Dr. P holding a baby goat

I felt like I was on a farm with all the baby animals like this goat

We stayed in a Ger, the smaller cousin of a Yurt. There was plenty of room for the three of us, with camera equipment, a table for food, and stove for those cold mountain nights. Ardak, his family, Bek, and the cooks stayed in a Yurt, a bigger and more ornate version of a Ger. The Ger was warm and cozy, and once we got a few of the leaks plugged, we stayed nice and dry for the few days it rained.

A Ger with smoke coming out of its stovepipe

At this elevation the nights were nippy. A wood burning stove in our Ger kept us warm.

 

Playing cards around a table in the Ger

Many nights were spent playing cards. It is quite the challenge to teach cards to people that are not card players (and falling asleep after a very long day).

Our watch cat keeping a close eye on things

We even had our own watch cat on duty to protect us

Our cooks posing with us as we eat breakfast outside in the beautiful sun

Our day started early, and we had the same wonderful cooks as last time. It was so nice to eat breakfast outside with that scenery and sunshine.

Dr. P eating breakfast with a cat on his lap

The cat loved to join us for breakfast

The cat on the lap of our editor as she tries to do her work

As a matter of fact, that lazy cat loved to join us wherever we were

We climbed a steep hill to get mobile WiFi at Ardak’s summer home. No luck this time. When we went into town during a rainy day we did get it. It was slow going, but when it finally kicked in it worked well. We were even able to Facetime with the folks back home- amazing!

Dr. P and his 2 travel companions trying to get WiFi on top of a mountain in western Mongolia

No reception, was not worth the climb up

We brought a DJI Phantom 4 drone with us for our aerial video footage. This inexpensive and sophisticated piece of equipment has revolutionized documentary film making, allowing talented people the ability to make outstanding movies that are a fraction of the cost of the big guys. We want our documentary video to be professional, so we flew in a special drone pilot from Hollyweird.

Our young camera lady readying the drone for filming

 She rode in from the airport on her horse , and got right to work testing the drone (affectionately named Quasi).

Learning the drone's hovering ability

All systems were go, so it was time to film something

When Quasi was warmed up and we were acclimated to our new digs we went looking for the eagle nest and chicks. Watching Ardak obtain a new chick is the primary reason we came in June. Ardak knew of a nest with chicks, and had been watching the nest for several weeks prior to our arrival.

The stream on the mountain we walked up to find the eagle nest

We started our walk by following this stream

We followed the stream uphill for quite a while. We had to cross the stream to get to the area of the eagle nest. While crossing this stream with slippery rocks we had to keep a close eye on a few people in our party.

Slipping on the slippery rocks as we crossed the stream

Even though there was one bruised butt, Quasi was not harmed in this fall, and thats all that matters, bruised ego not withstanding!

The steep walk to the eagle's nest

After we crossed the stream the walk became even steeper

There is still snow on the mountains in June

We crossed several snow banks, giving us an idea of how high we were and why we were huffing and puffing

Our drone pilot practicing her snow angels

We took a break on the way up because our drone pilot needed to practice her snow angels

A drone's eye view of the eagle nest

Ardak knew where the nest was, so we used Quasi to get a “birds eye view” of any chicks in the nest.

No chicks in the nest, just one egg that was not viable

All we saw was one egg and no chicks. This is not good news.

Our nomad guide climbing to get a better view of the nest

Ardak confirmed our finding by climbing up and looking for himself

Oops, no chicks. That’s a big problem! A large part of the reason we went in the summer was to watch Ardak take a chick from the nest as his new eagle to train for the next 6 years. He thinks the parents moved the chicks to some new nest in the mountains, and left this egg.  Didn’t know eagles could do that, so I am not sure we lost something in the translation.

A proud Kazakh nomad with his horse and golden eagle posing for us

Its time for plan B, whatever that is

While we were deciding what to do next we did some more filming of Ardak and the eagle he would soon release

A picture on the screen of the video camera while filming the nomad hunting with his eagle

We used the Canon C-100 Mark II video camera

We also used the Canon 1 DX Mark II still and video camera. This camera initially was used for still photography to freeze the eagle in flight.

The master eagle falconer releasing his eagle from his glove

The golden eagle just after release diving after a rabbit

The golden eagle just after release diving after a rabbit

The golden eagle just as it is landing

The golden eagle hovering over it's prey

With all the familiarity of constant time around the eagle, and Ardak’s casual approach due to his extensive experience with this eagle, it is easy to assume the eagle is just like a household pet. We had a vivid reminder that this is not the case. Bota was pulling a rabbit to train the eagle while we were filming. For some reason, hard to know why, and after numerous successful training runs, the eagle grabbed Bota and took her down.

The golden eagle grabbing the trainer by the leg

Fortunately the eagle did not hurt Bota. Ardak yelled at her to sit still as he raced towards her on his horse.

Master eagle falconer pulling the eagle off the trainer

He was there in no time and Bota was no worse for wear, just a bit shaken up like the rest of us

You can see the sequence in this video

Master eagle falconer mounted on his horse with eagle on his arm at sunrise

We got up real early and took a few sunrise photos

We warmed up Quasi and got some nice shots of Ardak working with the eagle while riding his horse. The eagle did great with the drone flying right next to it.

Drone following the master eagle falconer as he gallops with his eagle

Master eagle falconer galloping with his eagle on his arm

Master eagle falconer galloping with his eagle on his arm

Master eagle falconer galloping with his eagle on his arm

Master eagle falconer galloping with his eagle on his arm

There were many nomad families living in the mountain valley, so were invited to several “five finger ” feasts. This is their version of a backyard barbecue. We experienced this several times on our February trip. It was more enjoyable in the summer with the beautiful weather and with the nomads more relaxed.

Saying a prayer before slaughtering a sheep for a feast

They slaughtered one of their sheep for the feast. They conduct a special ceremony and prayer prior to the slaughter in honor of the sheep giving them sustenance.

The sheep is then prepared for a feast the following day for several families. As part of the feast they cook their version of pasta, which is like a big dumpling. While the dumpling is cooked the mutton is in a container below it being boiled.

Dumplings that look like plain Cinnabons for the mutton feast

A little cinnamon, and lots of butter, and they could have easily passed for Cinnabons!

Nomad ladies drinking milk and tea prior to the mutton feast

Before the feast everyone drinks a tea and milk combination and snacks on their hard cheese

Nomad children drinking milk and tea prior to the mutton feast

Even the kids drink the tea and milk

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You never know who is going to crash a party when there is free food!

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Before any food is eaten, another thank you is given. The eldest person present, who is the man with the red hat on the far left, is the first to cut a piece of mutton.

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Once he takes the first piece everyone digs in

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These ladies look much older than they are. This is due to the fact they are outside and exposed to abundant sunshine for almost all of their lives, making their skin age prematurely.

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The kids are quite photogenic

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We got them all to sit still long enough for this shot

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A final toast to a good meal and a nice get-together

To help pass the time while Ardak looked for the eagle chicks at another nest he knew of, we had some fun with Ardak’s daughter and the young cooks. They work hard and are always behind the scenes, so it was nice to make them feel special.

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We pretended Ardak’s daughter was a director, directing her dad on a script that will be in the documentary

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She had no idea what this sign said or meant

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She did enjoy bossing the cooks around for a few minutes though

With a little bit of coaxing she got the job done!

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She was a tough taskmaster, and made us look at the video every night before we could go to bed

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My mom made hats again

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This time it was put on a 3 week old

While we were doing all this filming (and eating) Ardak’s son Alpus was searching an area of known eagle activity according to Ardak. Alpus rode his vintage Chinese motorcycle (it has no neutral gear, you need to keep the clutch in for neutral) around looking for it. It is a clunker for sure.

motorcycle

I took it for a short ride, and decided it was best not to go too far, so I parked it against the Ger and got away while I still could

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I don’t know how he did it, but Alpus found a nest on this mountainside a few miles away from our Ger

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The eagle nest is in the circle. Can you see it?

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Our director loaded up the van and off we went with Quasi to see if there were any chicks before we climbed up the very steep slope to the nest

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Conditions were windy so we didn’t dare get the drone too close to the cliff the nest was perched on

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An adult eagle was present, so we assumed the chicks were there

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This picture gives you perspective on the eagle nest circled on the right, and where we did most of our filming at the circle on the left 50 yards away

This mountain is longer, steeper and more precarious than is apparent on the above photo. We carried lots of camera equipment on the 30 minute hike to the top almost every afternoon once the nest was discovered.

trudging

While I trudged along…..


waiting

The guides would patiently wait for me at the top. They were mountain goats, and carried most of the heavy camera equipment.

We set up multiple cameras, and moved our locations several times to get the best vantage point based on cover and the changing afternoon light.

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The C-100 Mark II video camera with 400mm lens, the 7D Mark II with 70-200 lens, a walkie talkie and swarvoski binoculars

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At another vantage point we used the 400mm and 500mm lenses

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The 500mm lens stable on a rock outcrop

Conditions we usually quite windy. This made filming problematic with our extreme telephoto lenses.

The adult eagle would watch us with interest, and then eventually fly away. This was our chance to approach the nest.

Golden eagle parent leaving the nest

We peeled our eyes with our binoculars while the adults were gone so we would not be at the nest when they returned.  Our guides have various and interesting ways to use the binoculars

 

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Some liked the prone position

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Bek held them vertical and used one eye only

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Our ground crew 1/4 mile away was supposed to stay in touch with us and use the walkie talkies to give us an update on the eagles from their different vantage point.

Ardak kept calling them, and could not figure out why they did not answer?

We pulled out the binoculars and found out why- they were fast asleep!

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In spite of our sleeping assistants we obtained some good shots and video of the chicks with our setup

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Ardak went first to check on the chicks and determine which one was the female, the one he would eventually take

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He demonstrated what he would do a few months later when the 3 week old chicks were old enough for him to take

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Video of Ardak demonstrating how he will remove the chick

After Ardak went we all went there to see the chicks up close and personal

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While some of us were at the nest the rest of us were scanning the skies for the return of the adults. We learned how to identify them from far away and we alerted those at the nest to get back in plenty of time.

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Before they would land they would circle the nest many times to make sure it was safe

 

Here she is returning to the nest in slow motion

After we left Ardak and Bek went back to the nest several times to make sure everything was ok.

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This is the smaller of the two chicks 2 months later

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The chick has grown substantially over the last 2 months

Back at the fort Ardak prepares to release his eagle of 6 years now that he knows where he will obtain his new chick. He releases the eagle at this time in her life so she has many years to find a mate and produce offspring. Other nomads keep them longer. She is well trained and will survive well on her own.

He gives her a full meal before releasing her so she has a good start on her new life

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Her release was very unceremonious. Ardak took her to the hillside and just let her go.

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She took off like usual

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 She flew away as he rode back to his Yurt

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She landed on a rock and looked at him for a while, and then just flew away to her new life

Ardak has another adult eagle he will be using to hunt with and also to train the new chick. She will now get all of his attention and will become an accomplished hunter in a short time.

Here she is on the alert and keen to hunt

Everyone did a great job, so as a treat I brought out the chocolate covered almonds from Trader Joe’s I had been hiding until our last night. The nomads liked them, although I don’t think they quite understood when we tried to explain they were from Belgium.

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The managers at Trader Joe’s back home got a kick out of this picture

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After a final night of celebration with our chocolate almonds it was time to say good bye to these very hospitable and warm people. We will miss them, and hope to go back!

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Ardak and Bek know their stuff and cannot do enough for you. I will be going back, probably in the summer, in the near future. You are welcome to join my group, even if you are not a photographer. You can contact me at vet@lbah.com if you are interested.