Ardak, a master eagle falconer, training his golden eagle
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.
The capital, Ulan Bataar, at 70 degrees F in the summer is much better than -20 degrees F we had in our winter trip!
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.
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.
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.
Even though it is June, there is still plenty of snow in the mountains
Here is the dirt road we took to Ardak’s summer home
This is the same road we took on our winter trip, when the water in the river spilled over onto the road and froze
Instead of crossing frozen river-highways we crossed rapidly flowing streams.
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.
This is horse country, and you will see plenty of them driving to Ardak’s summer home
They belong to the nomads who ride them daily
This horse will be in our documentary movie The Twelfth Eagle
After four 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.
Ardak, with eagle attached to his arm of course, was waiting for us upon arrival
He celebrated our return by immediately lighting up!
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
The Yaks graze freely in the limitless grass
With all that nutritious grass the Yaks and cows produce plenty of milk to make some of their winter food
This is their cheese drying on a rack, the cheese called kurt that we ate during our winter trip
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.
At this elevation the nights were nippy. A wood burning stove in our Ger kept us warm.
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).
We even had our own watch cat on duty to protect us
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.
The cat loved to join us for breakfast
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!
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.
She rode in from the airport on her horse , and got right to work testing the drone (affectionately named Quasi).
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.
We started our walk to the nest with the chick 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.
Even though there was one bruised butt, Quasi was not harmed in this fall, and thats all that matters, bruised ego not withstanding!
After we crossed the stream the walk became even steeper
We crossed several snow banks, giving us an idea of how high we were and why we were huffing and puffing
We took a break on the way up because our drone pilot needed to practice her snow angels
Ardak knew where the nest was, so we used Quasi to get a “birds eye view” of any chicks in the nest
All we saw was one egg and no chicks. This is not good news.
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.
It’s 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
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.
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.
Fortunately the eagle did not hurt Bota. Ardak yelled at her to sit still as he raced towards her on his horse.
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
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.
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.
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, what they call the “five finger” feast. 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.
A little cinnamon, and lots of butter, and they could have easily passed for Cinnabons!
Before the feast everyone drinks a tea and milk combination and snacks on their hard cheese
Even the cute kids drink the tea and milk
You never know who is going to crash a party when there is free food!
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.
Once he takes the first piece everyone digs in
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.
The children are quite photogenic
We got them all to sit still long enough for this shot
A final toast to a good meal and appreciation of a different and beautiful culture
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.
We pretended Ardak’s daughter was a director, directing her dad on a script that will be in the documentary
She had no idea what this sign said or meant
She did enjoy bossing the cooks around for a few minutes though when she got to play director and sit in the chair
With a little bit of coaxing she got the job done!
Our young director was a tough taskmaster, and made us look at the video every night before we could go to bed
My mom in Michigan made hats again for the children
This time it was put on a three 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.
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
I don’t know how he did it, but Alpus found a nest on this mountainside a few miles away from our Ger
The eagle nest is in the circle. Can you see it? Alpus did.
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
Conditions were windy so we didn’t dare get the drone too close to the cliff the nest was perched on
An adult eagle was present, so we assumed the chicks were there
This picture gives you perspective on the eagle nest circled on the right, and where we did most of our filming from at the circle on the left 50 yards away
This mountain is longer, steeper and more precarious than is apparent in 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.
While I trudged along…..
The guides would patiently wait for me at the top. They were mountain goats, and carried most of the heavy camera equipment. That is the advantage of living in this mountainous area year round.
We set up multiple cameras, and moved our locations several times to get the best vantage point based on cover and the ever changing light.
The C-100 Mark II video camera with 400mm lens, the 7D Mark II with 70-200 lens, a walkie talkie and Swarovski binoculars
At another vantage point we used the 400mm and 500mm lenses
The 500mm lens on a rock outcrop pointed towards the nest
Conditions we usually quite windy. This made filming problematic with our extreme telephoto lenses that need stability for a good photo.
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.
Some liked the prone position
Bek held them vertical and used one eye only
These nomads have tremendous eyesight and knowledge, and we had a heads up on when the adults came back to the nest
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!
This is a male and a female chick
Ardak went first to check on the chicks and determine which one was the female, the one he would eventually take
He demonstrated what he would do a few months later when the 3 week old chicks were old enough for him to take
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
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.
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 came back home to the U.S. Ardak and Bek went back to the nest several times to make sure everything was ok.
This male is the smaller of the two chicks 2 months later
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 that 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
Her release was very unceremonious. Ardak took her to the hillside and just let her go.
She took off like usual
She flew away as he rode back to his Yurt
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.
The managers at Trader Joe’s back home got a kick out of this picture
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!
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.