Bigtime Birding: Soaring with Eagles in Mongolia
Mongolia has always represented remote adventure for me.
It's a place that, from the time I was a young kid, held a steadfast level of interest and created curiosity. When I think of Mongolia, I imagine vast open spaces and varied terrain from deserts to grasslands, mountains to hidden river canyons which wind through ancient landscapes. As someone who has been drawn my entire life to learn more about cultures different from my own, the nomadic nature of the Mongolian and Kazakh people, their belief systems, and way of life relative to nature, horse and eagle have always fascinated me.
Perhaps most of all, though, my passion for flight and birds made the high Eurasian Steppe somewhere I wanted to go because of the falconry history and the practice of hunting with eagles, which has been a tradition there for thousands of years.
I’ve explored the art of falconry for the past 20 years, hunting in Montana with falcons and hawks, and I’ve found the partnership with a raptor and the privilege to witness nature through that partnership to have added more to my life than I would have expected when I started that journey. Going to western Mongolia—and getting a small glimpse into how Kazakhs train and continue to hunt with eagles—has been high on my bucket list.
As a contemporary falconer from the US, the chance to learn from people who continue to practice this form of sustenance hunting represented an opportunity to step back in time.
So when good friends and fellow KEEN ambassadors Krystle Wright and Nick Greece reached out about a potential Mongolia trip last year, it was literally a dream come true.
As a contemporary falconer from the US, the chance to learn from people who continue to practice this form of sustenance hunting represented an opportunity to step back in time. Nick and I also hoped to fly our paragliders over the Altai, and I couldn't help but feel lucky to potentially see those mountains from the same perspective as the golden eagles (bürküt) who hunt cooperatively with their bürkütchü (hunter).
In today's day and age, we have a massive benefit to be able to visit places in just about every corner of the world and I've always felt that travel and viewing the world from a unique perspective is an important and necessary part of learning and growing as a person. Through travel, we learn how to be humble, how to celebrate beliefs and ways of life that are different than our own, how to see the world as “it is”, as opposed to “how we want it to be”.
Jeff and his falcon Cirrus in his fourth season hunting with him. "He’s getting so consistent and reliable. To watch him do what he obviously loves most in life fills us up. Such a cool little dude...and a deadly little fighter jet." To learn more about falconry from Jeff, listen to this podcast.
Both Nick and Krystle share my passion for experience and the view that the world around us is both huge and very small at the same time. Huge because there is so much we have yet to see and small because when meeting new people around the world, it's easy to see how similar we all are. In other words, although the differences in culture, religion or world view might be drastically different and reason to celebrate, at the deepest levels we are all humans seeking happiness.
"The art of hunting with raptors, in many ways, hasn’t changed much in the last several thousand years. Spending time with this eagle hunter and his dragon, and the family their partnership helps to feed, made this one of the more special trips I’ve been lucky enough to go on."
On this trip, I had the privilege to explore a place I've always wanted to see. Not just through my own eyes but also through the eyes of two good friends. Highs and lows, deserts, grasslands and the mighty Altai mountains...horses and eagles, sun, rain and snow; every minute of this trip was full-value.
What I gained was not just a life highlight. This trip also fed my hunger for an increased understanding of the world around me. And since there's so much more to see, I hope to be able to go back someday—to see old friends and make some new ones!