x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Falcons race for prizes near Al Ain

Speedy birds of prey raced for the bait at the Second International Festival of Falconry near Al Ain.

Flying free: a falcon chases the bait in a race at the 2nd International Festival of Falconry yesterday. A fast bird could reach its prey in 18 seconds. Ravindranath K / The National
Flying free: a falcon chases the bait in a race at the 2nd International Festival of Falconry yesterday. A fast bird could reach its prey in 18 seconds. Ravindranath K / The National

Everything is quiet on this cordoned-off patch of desert as all eyes turn to Sayer, who is carried into the racing arena by Hamoud Suliyam.

The dark brown Gyr Hurr is wearing a light brown hood with golden tips, and seems oblivious to the crowds, cameras and the nervous state of her falconer.

"You can do it, just stay calm," Mr Suliyam tells Sayer, petting her.

The two of them stand at the bright orange-and-yellow-flagged pole for almost 20 minutes, waiting for the speed radar to be properly set up. Then, Mr Suliyam receives a hand-wave signal, and removes Sayer's hood.

Four hundred metres across the desert in Remah Camp, 50 kilometres away from Al Ain, a man called "al melwah" is twirling the bait - an object covered with feathers from the houbara bustard.

At the blink of an eye, Sayer takes to the air, zooming in on the bait with a precision that suggests she always knew it was there. She catches the bait in 21 seconds - but this isn't the end of the falcon race for the first-time contender.

The year-old bird of prey spots a passing pigeon, and shoots into the air again, leaving the torn-up, fake bait behind in favour of the live one.

"Follow her!" yells Mr Suliyam, as he steps into a 4x4, and off he goes chasing down Sayer, who eventually catches her prey.

"Anything can happen at a falcon race, it is part of the fun," said Obeid Al Mazrouie, race overseer at this 2nd International Festival of Falconry. Yesterday, there were 150 competing falcons of Gyr Hurr - or Saker as it is internationally known. Another 150 of the Gyr Shaheen, or Peregrine, will race today.

The falcons with the 10 best times over the 400metre, desert strip will earn prizes. Yesterday's first-prize winner, Salik, earned a Toyota 4x4 for its caretaker.

Back in the city of Al Ain, scattered about Al Jahili fort, international falconer camps were preparing for the grand "parade of nations" that will take place on Thursday. Eighty nations will come into the arena near the fort, with traditionally dressed falconers and their falcons donning hoods and fashions in their country's national colours.

Falcons are among the world's fastest birds. The Peregrine falcon can plummet from the sky at speeds of more than 320kph.

"The faster falcons could reach their bait in 18 seconds," said Mr Al Mazrouie, who was sitting, watching the races from an open traditional weaved tent with open majlis. A flat screen broadcasted the results as they came in. Food and drinks were regularly served. There wasn't much missing from this spot in the camp.

"In this race, you want the radar to catch you speeding over the limit," said Mr Al Mazrouie, who was too busy organising the races to enter his own falcon.

Unlike many of the falconers, Mr Al Mazrouie did not name his own hunting bird.

Falcons in the competition had names such as "qonbola" (bomb); "khateer" (dangerous). There was also a "London", who took the runners-up spot in 19.4 seconds, .4 seconds behind Salik, and a "Paris".

But more commonly, falcons are given male names - even when they are females. Sayer is one such case, and so is "Saddam", named after the late president of Iraq, and some are named after sheikhs.

"Because the females are bigger than the males, they are mistaken for males. But even if they know they are females, they prefer to give them tough male names," said Dr Ken Riddle, a 70-year-old American falconer and veterinarian who has written books about falcons.

Dr Riddle is one of the 800 festival participants, including falconers, experts, researchers and administrators at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), and other international institutions spanning 75 countries around the world.

He has devoted his life to these feathery raptors. A falconer since the age of 10, Dr Riddle has 20 years' experience caring for the falcons of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. "They are very intelligent, fast, and can be playful unlike other birds," Dr Riddle said of the falcons. "You can throw a tennis ball, and it will go after it, play with it, and even bring it back to you."

Inside one of the tents at the desert camp, Dr Riddle was holding a big grey brown pure Gyr. He stood next to his friend, the American falconer Oscar Pack, 62, who was in turn holding his "Joanna", a small beige brown American Prairie.

"Don't be fooled by her demure looks and tiny size, she is a wild one," Mr Pack said.