In Peru there is a falconer that lives about 3 hours' busride south of Lima. If you dare ride with him you will pull into his 650-acre farm in about 2. He will show you his and his fathers' collection of Peruvian Paso horses that he sells around the world. You will see acres and acres of tangelos and asparagas bound for markets in Europe and North America. And he will show you his falcons. He has Peregrines and Aplomado falcons, as well as Harris' Hawks, Bat Falcons, Bicolored Hawks (like Cooper's Hawks in the US) and Merlin falcons. He flies them, he breeds them and he loves them.
And he is given to extremes. One of his extreme habits is to fly his Aplomado Falcons after Ornate Tinamous at 13,500 feet of elevation. These birds are about the size of chukars, they range individually and in pairs throughout the high and dry Puna of central and southern Peruvian Andes. We told him we wanted him to take us up there. He agreed, because he is a gracious host, but I could see some misgiving in his eyes.
Jose Luis told us about a couple of Brazilians who came and could hardly get out of the car at that altitude. He told us of some Colombians who barely managed 100 yards from the car without throwing up. He suggested lower elevations where "there were hundreds of tinamou to chase," but we tenaciously clung to the highest prize. The day came, we loaded up the birds and the dogs, and headed out.
He drove up the mountains like he drove from Lima, at breakneck speed, congratulating himself for making very good time. On the way we saw Andean Geese and wild Vicuñas. We arrived at the hunting area at about noon, and broke out the best of his Aplomado falcons and dogs. We charged into the hills with Landon coerced into filming the action on his brand-new professional-grade video camera.
Bird after bird flew, and was duly chased in amazingly fast and agile flight by the falcon. Bird after bird escaped, and the falcon began to get fatigued. Soon she decided she had had enough and took to soaring up along the slopes, totally ignoring Jose's frantic efforts to recall her. She finally settled down on the brow of the hill, 500 feet above us.
A pair of wild Aplomados appeared soaring above her, and then the focus of the falconer's concern: A Variable Hawk, a bird of prey about the size and power of our Red-Tailed Hawk, appeared. These birds are entirely capable of killing and carrying off an unwary Aplomado Falcon. We decided we had to climb after the bird, and we all charged up the hill, ignoring the searing lactic acid build-upn in our legs and burning oxygen-starved lungs. Soon I was ahead of the pack, and a pair of Black-Chested Buzzard Eagles appeared. They are half the size of a Golden Eagle and are the dominant avian predator of the Puna. Jose calls them pirates. He has lost four falcons to them over the years.
At first the eagles didn't have their eagle-eyes on the falcon, they chased the hawk around the sky with murderous intent until the trio disappeared in the distance. Distance is deceiving, however, because they can easily cruise at 60 miles an hour, which means an eagle that is a mile away and out of sight can be onsight in 60 seconds. I broke into a run up the ridge.
We got to the falcon OK, and began to hunt down the hill. Finally, on the 10th try, the little falcon was successful. We cheered her, we saluted one another, and we took lots of pictures. Landon, in the mean time, had taken some truly excellent footage of flushes and chases, things that Jose will use in his upcoming video, with acknowledgment to the budding videographic skills of Landon.
We ran a pair of pointers and flew another falcon briefly, but by 5 p.m. Jose's knees were giving out, so we piled into the car for the ride home. I noticed a new kind of openness in Jose's eyes. He no longer warned us of the difficulties of high-altitude falconry. He finally believed that the time we had spent in Ecuador on the páramo had prepared us well for his high-altitude adventure.
But that is not the point of this story. At one point he asked if I was suffering because I was tired. I pointed to the beautiful falcon on his glove, and then to the spectacular vistas surrounding us and said, "Look at this, look at all this! I am not suffering in the least!" Physical capacity not withstanding, if one were not open to the beauty around one would fail to enjoy it nonetheless. Beauty has the capacity to energize the heart, and therefore energize the muscles. There is truly a power in the eyes that gives life to the body, it's part of our ability to see God in the world around us.