From steppes of Mongolia to sunny Deeside

Eagle of the Steppes: Stuart (left), Boris (Right)
Eagle of the Steppes: Stuart (left), Boris (Right)

A real-life eagle made a dramatic entrance to a talk on falconry in Ballater last week, after getting spooked and nearly flooring his handler.

The sight of 30-odd humans tucking into home-baked refreshments and tea got the better of Boris the steppe eagle’s manners.

Upon entering the room at Ballater’s Victoria and Albert Halls, the raptor took one look around before spreading his wings their full five-foot span and flapping wildly, nearly taking down his handler, Head of International Raptor Research and Conservation, Stewart Miller - but Miller was able to hold on and calm the mighty bird.

Then he walked with Boris to the front of the hall, and the airborne terror of small mammals was calm and happy for a public meet-and-greet.

Prior to the arrival of Boris, Miller had told the audience about his recent trip to Mongolia, where he lived a week with Ardak the eagle hunter.

“One of the things I’ve always wanted to achieve in my life,” said Miller, “is to go to the place where falconry really began. So I went and spent some time with the Berkutchi people, who still hunt with golden eagles.”

Attendees were then shown a slide show: pictures of the frost-bitten Mongolian landscape, clips of Miller riding with Berkutchi horsemen, each with a golden eagle perched on sticks, and then the eagles taking flight in pursuit of a corsac fox.

“It’s interesting to note,” said Miller, himself an experienced falconer, “that they let two eagles go at the same time. Over here, that could prove to be a bit dodgy.”

The biggest surprise to the audience was learning that the hunters set their birds on wolves, something the golden eagle would almost never do except through training. It is thought that eagle hunting has its origins in protecting cattle from such beasts.

When the golden eagle tackles a fox or a wolf, it grabs the jaw with one talon to stop it biting back, and crushes its skull with the other. This is a skill it learns quickly through keen intelligence.

Boris the steppe eagle is a smaller cousin of the golden eagle, from the steppes of Mongolia. He was hand-raised, and helps Miller’s conservation work, accompanying him on talks in schools.