Raptor Projects

Raptor projects Mike’s Falconry Supplies has supported in past years:

The Philippine Eagle Project

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Notes from the Jungle by

Joe Atkinson

For a life long falconer, going to the Philippines to train one of the world’s most exotic eagles was a dream come true. I have spent the last 30 plus years training and hunting with golden eagles and my wife, Cordi, and I have released dozens of golden eagles back into the wild, so the chance to train two Philippine Eagles was too great an opportunity to pass up.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with Neil Rettig Productions and the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF), has been working on a documentary featuring the very endangered Philippine Eagle (formerly known as the Philippine Monkey Eating Eagle). With only 300 eagles left, the Philippines could be the first country on the planet to have its national bird go extinct. Last year Neil Rettig and his wife, Laura, spent six months living in a cabin out in the remote jungle filming the nesting behavior of this very majestic bird. The process of filming these eagles was something that few people would have undertaken -­‐-­‐ hauling heavy camera equipment up a very steep mountain that is almost impossible to walk up; building filming platforms in trees 160 feet above the ground and doing most of the work of getting their camera equipment in place at night so as not to disturb the nesting eagles; enduring intense heat and getting eaten by a whole host of biting, stinging bugs -­‐-­‐ again, very few people would have gone to these lengths. Through their efforts, Neil and Laura have given the world a very unique look into the habits and nesting behavior of this very rare bird. Their footage was incorporated into a two-­‐hour special aired in the Philippines on June 14 to bring awareness to the Philippine people about the desperate situation facing their national bird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s documentary will be shown in the US and worldwide in the coming year, in hopes of gaining worldwide support to save this beautiful bird from extinction.

My job would be to train and fly two of these eagles to possibly add some rare close-­‐up shots to the already fantastic wild footage that Neil and Laura had. Just the fact that people were even discussing training and flying a Philippine Eagle free out in the jungle was hard to believe. Many people had to be on board before this could happen and I am frankly surprised that the plan was given the green light. But get the green light it did and on March 2nd I flew off to Calinan on the island of Mindanao to begin seven weeks of intensive eagle training at the PEF. The goal was to film a trained eagle flying free in the jungle, something that, in all likelihood, would never happen again. Cordi and Chrissy, our youngest daughter, would be joining me for the second half of the trip, Chrissy to photo document the entire experience and Cordi to help me with the later training and flying of the eagles.

The two eagles we were to train had very different backgrounds. The female, Mabuhay, weighed in at 14lbs, is two years old, born and raised at the PEF and is slated to be a breeder. The male, Imbulog, weighed in at 10lbs, is five years old, was also born and raised at the PEF but was released for two years only to be trapped and returned to the PEF because he was eating domestic animals. With the cooperation of the PEF staff I had started a weight reduction plan weeks before my arrival as time was to be a major factor. As it turned out I should have reduced their weight by another 25% but it was better to have erred on the fatter side to avoid any possible issues. It was not like I could look up online what weight other people have flown their Philippine Eagles at so I guessed according to my experience with golden eagles.

My training method is not the traditional approach to manning a bird by sitting with the bird on the glove for hours and putting the hood on a million times, none of that. I just simply feed them. I place them on a screen perch and give them food. My goal is to change the eagle’s perception of me from a negative to a positive. This is the method I used with the Philippine Eagles and once they had progressed to feeding on the fist I introduced the lure and away we went.

With only 300 Philippine Eagles left in the world losing one while in free flight was not an option, so I needed to determine which of the two eagles was the safer one to free fly. In the early days of training Mabuhay was the frontrunner, progressing through the training more quickly. However, it soon became clear that Imbulog was the more compliant of the two and showed no issues with anything we asked him to do. In the end Cordi and I flew him completely free, no jesses or cuffs, only the tail mount transmitter, other than that a completely free bird.

A typical filming flight would go like this… With all the cameras in place I’d take Imbulog to a predetermined tree branch and place him on it. Cordi would then swing the lure calling Imbulog from a good distance away to a spot marked by the cinematographers. Like a huge goshawk Imbulog would twist and turn his way through the trees on his way to Cordi with surprising speed. We were able to repeat these flights multiple times with Imbulog performing like a veteran each time…amazing!

The Philippine Eagle is a powerful intelligent bird that looks at you with piercing eyes. They have no competitors in their jungle -­‐-­‐ no big cats, bears, wolves -­‐-­‐ they are the top predator in the Philippines and this gives them an air of confidence like no other raptor on the planet. I have trained a lot of eagles in my life but nothing like the Philippine Eagle. It was truly a life changing experience for Cordi, Chrissy and myself to work with such a magnificent bird. We would like to thank Mike’s Falconry for their generous support of this project. With a project like this, quality equipment is a must and Mike’s Falconry Supplies never lets me down!