Idaho falconers channel history of hunting

They practice skills once used in Middle East, China and Europe

By John Miller

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 31 2012 10:24 p.m. MST

Like many falconers, Moon acquired Laser the old-fashioned way: Permits in hand, he and a friend scaled a lava cliff in southeastern Idaho's Minidoka County on a rainy spring day, taking two of four young birds from a nest.

That makes Laser an "imprint" bird, one Moon will likely keep for life.

For others who capture "passage" birds — migrating raptors simply on their way through an area — they may keep them for just a season before returning them to the wild. For instance, nearly every winter, Bill Heinrich, another Idaho falconer, traps a dark, chocolate-colored merlin, trains it for three weeks and flies it after starlings, their natural prey.

"Merlins are extremely fast," he said. "The starlings are dead within seconds."

Come springtime, Heinrich releases his merlin to return to its summer home in the vast boreal forests of pine and spruce trees in Canada or eastern Russia.

Heinrich is a raptor biologist at The World Center for Birds of Prey, an education center run by the raptor conservation group, The Peregrine Fund. From its 580-acre hilltop campus south of Boise, its staff does work around the world, including saving endangered species like the California condor.

Falconers use bits of chicken or sometimes quail as treats to lure their birds back. But in rare instances, they don't return.

Stephen Buffat, an eastern Idaho falconer and licensed raptor breeder, was flying his peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid in hopes of killing a sage grouse near Craters of the Moon National Monument and Reserve's ancient volcanos west of Idaho Falls.

Zeus, Buffat's bird, shed one talon-mounted transmitter; the other malfunctioned and the bird flew off into the failing evening light.

"It's a good probability he's gone," concedes Buffat, who posted a "Lost Bird" ad on the Internet. "But I'm going to keep my hopes up."

With a leather-hooded Laser sitting calmly on a backseat perch, Moon drives his camouflaged Honda SUV nearly every day into Idaho's open country. It takes hours of patient training. "The more they fly, the better they are," he said.

Just recently, Laser took her first Hungarian partridge, a classic midflight strike above the stark eastern Idaho desert beneath the Lost River Mountains.

"It's was beautiful," Moon said, still amazed. "The feathers just flew in the sunlight."

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