Saturday, July 23, 2016

What colour gyr? A minor Conan Doyle mystery

In 1880, a third-year medical student at the University of Edinburgh accepted a position as ship's surgeon and captain's companion on the whaling vessel Hope out of Peterhead, Scotland. Like many such adventurers, he kept a journal of his travels; this particular journalist was to become better known as a writer than as a physician. His name was Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle scholars Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower (both, I believe, acquaintances of my dad, "Corot") edited and annotated Conan Doyle's journal as 'Dangerous Work': Diary of an Arctic Adventure, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2012. Unsurprisingly, it's a good read; Doyle's turns of phrase, sense of humour, and essential compassion for humanity will be recognizeable to anyone familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories.

'Dangerous Work' appealed to me both as a Holmesian and as someone with an interest in Arctic wildlife. So I was particularly intrigued by the entry for 16 April:

Jack Buchan shot a hawk in the evening which the Captain with his eagle eye discerned upon a hummock, and detected even at that great distance to be a hawk. About 18 inches high with beautifully speckled plumage.

The use of "speckled plumage" would seem to indicate that this was a white gyr. Consider this entry from 18 March, about a month earlier: "Captain saw a large speckled owl a couple of hundred yards from the ship, saw a few roaches [dovekies, Alle alle] and guillemots but we are too far from land to have many. We are considerably to the North of Jan Mayen now." Clearly at this latitude, what the captain reported was a snowy owl; if both the owl and the "hawk" were speckled, we might assume both shared black markings on a white background.

Later in the journal, however, Conan Doyle includes on a "Zoological List of Whaling Voyage" an "Iceland hawk (Falco Icelandicus)". At that time, taxonomists recognized several species of gyr, corresponding to what we now denote "colour morphs", and the Icelandic falcon was grey on the back and white underneath. A white gyr with black markings would be considered a Greenlandic falcon.

[Field guide illustration by Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson would have shunned the old-fashioned terminology, but the central bird represents the "Icelandic" type, and the right-hand bird the "Greenlandic".]

So, was Doyle's gyr white or grey? The young medical student turned whaler was not an ornithologist, and made no claim to be one, so it could be a mistake to rely too heavily on his identification of the bird as an "Iceland hawk" specifically. His drawing ("my idea of a hawk—had the Smallpox in its youth") makes no distinction between the back and underneath, showing instead a uniform spotting all over—but again, while some of his sketches are quite good, he had no pretentions of being an artist, either. The question could be easily settled if the collected specimen could be tracked down, but if I'm honest, I'm far too lazy a researcher to make the effort even if I knew for a fact that the specimen still existed.

[Conan Doyle's sketch, along with one by Captain John Gray.]

What is beyond question is that Conan Doyle's observation of a gyr perched on an ice floe far from land is consistent with a "discovery" made over a century later by Kurt Burnham of the High Arctic Institute, indicating that some gyrs actually spend a good portion of the year out at sea. As Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, proclaims in The Hound of the Baskervilles, "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."

Friday, July 22, 2016

Green sunfish

Some anglers deride them as "bycatch" or "bait thieves", but when you're flyfishing for beauty, it's hard to beat Lepomis cyanellus. (We like their aggression as well—few fish really attack a fly like a greenie.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Soul of wit

In a conversation comparing the wordplay, linguistic innovation, and quotability of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity) and William Shakespeare (Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing):

M: "...Of course, Whedon's soliloquies do tend to be shorter."

J: "Well, you know what they say about brevity..."

M: "'The soul of wit', yeah?

J: "Ooh, I like that! It's catchy."

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I think what Haldane meant to say was "a perfectly understandable fondness for beetles".

This iridescent scarab beetle was rescued from a pissoir and released in more congenial surroundings.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lost and found

Long story short: We went away for Father's Day weekend, camping and fishing on Verdigre Creek, and returned to find the mews empty. Evidence left behind suggested that kids had broken into the mews, poked at Stekoa with broomsticks, and thrown flowerpots at him until he finally fled. (Not the only vandalism done, but by far the most serious.) This was devastating on multiple levels: he's the best rabbit hawk I've ever flown, Jessica is at least as attached to him as I am, and I don't know whether my circumstances this autumn will allow for trapping and training a new hawk. But by far the worst part was not knowing whether he had escaped his tormentors unscathed.

I was sure I'd never see him again, but last Tuesday evening Elaine Bachel from Raptor Recovery got word that a hawk wearing bells had been seen at a city park. She contacted Amanda Kaufman, my friend and former apprentice, now a general falconer and working for Animal Control. Amanda stopped by the house, gathered up Jess, and went to the park, where they maintained a vigil until I arrived from work. By that time, Stekoa was settled into a pine tree for the night, but Jess and Amanda assured me he was flying well, and that he had been on the ground eating at the time of the original sighting.

Dawn the next morning found me at the park, just a couple of miles from home, ready to call Stekoa down for a large feeding of rabbit. He showed some indications of interest—small intention movements and the like—but my hopes for a quick recovery were disappointed. Not too surprising, considering he was last flown nearly four months ago, not particularly hungry, and most likely a bit traumatized by his recent experience. After a few hours of constant mobbing by angry songbirds, he left the park and flew into a residential neighbourhood, where of course I was bound to feel much more conspicuous.

I knew this in a vague, academic sense, but a red-tailed hawk's capacity for doing nothing is quite impressive. After twelve hours of mostly doing nothing while I fretted and fidgeted below, Stekoa finally came down to the fist and we went home.

Needless to say, I'm grateful.

Stekoa's been staying inside, and will at least until the fireworks have ended and security around the mews has been beefed up. The little bastards who broke in have not been found, and will likely never face any consequences for this particular crime, but I'm confident they'll end up in prison for something else years from now...

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Just arrived

Taken on Father's Day, with proud papa (and mama) perched overhead: red-winged blackbird nest along Verdigre Creek.

Friday, June 10, 2016

After my own heart

...They took their way towards the house on the opposite side of the river, in the nearest direction; but their progress was slow, for Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water, and talking to the man about them, that he advanced but little.

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Northern water snake

Not a water moccasin. The northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), while it can be an aggressive biter if provoked, is a non-venomous snake, and I was delighted to see several on a recent outing. Jess was somewhat less thrilled, especially since the first one took her quite by surprise as we were watching bluegills and green sunfish maintain and defend their nests at the edge of a pond. Nevertheless, she recovered nicely and took many of the photographs here.

Northern water snakes are, obviously, strong swimmers. When hunting, they tend to cruise the water immediately adjacent to the bank—hence Jessica's sudden alarm. They are apt to head for open water when themselves startled, or when traveling rather than actively looking for prey.

They also hunt ambush-fashion, generally facing the bank and keeping uncannily still, either completely submerged or with head held above the surface. In this attitude, they resemble nothing so much as a stick in the water, and doubtless this is the last thing many a frog or vole doesn't see. (Camouflage was probably enhanced on this particular day by the abundance of cottonwood down floating on the water.)

We also saw the snakes immobilised on the bottom amidst the sunfish nests; whether this represented ambush hunting or merely resting, we couldn't be certain, but it was impressive how long they stayed under. Even more surprising was how little alarm this seemed to occasion among the fish, though these were probably large enough not to be in any danger.

A few more portraits of these gorgeous serpents to round things out:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Old friends

A long time ago, before I was born, my great-aunt and -uncle were the proprietors of Five Oak Pony Farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. The farm was named not for five trees, but for one tree: The Five Oak, so called for its five major limbs. Situated on the crest of Satyr Hill, I'm told that it could be seen from Baltimore Harbor, some ten or twelve miles away; a huge tree.

My great-uncle, a taciturn Welshman named Evor Esaias, I do not remember well; he passed away early in my childhood. My great-aunt, on the other hand, I must cite as a major influence in the course of my life. Her given name was Eunice, but I and everyone else knew her (for reasons beyond my ken) as Aunt Pete. She was a naturalist; along with my grandfather (her brother) and my mom, she is responsible for my lifelong love of birds. When I eventually became a falconer, Aunt Pete had a better understanding than anyone else in my family of what that entailed. She herself interacted with hawks in a different way: a crack shot with an air rifle, she would dispatch grey squirrels when they overstayed their welcome at her birdfeeders, leaving them for the resident redtails on a sawed-off tree limb she called "the altar".

But long before this, she and Uncle Evor would ensnare carpenter bees in nooses of horsehair; we kids would hold the end of the horsehair and the bees would fly in little circles around us. We would feed the fish in her pond, or try to catch the chickens in her coop, or watch the birds come and go from the feeders, or explore the woods and the abandoned house down the hill. (Looking back, I know it had to have been lived in at least into the 1930s; we once found parts of an old Monopoly game, with green paint nearly worn from the wooden houses and red from the hotels.) We had the run of the place, and I feel sorry for kids who don't have their own places to roam at will.

Horsehair, yes—back on track now. The pony business was done before my time, but three Shetlands remained: Tryggvi, her daughter Twig, and Natalie. Tryggvi, like Uncle Evor, died early in my life, leaving only faint fond memories. Twig left me with more significant recollections. Although I had been warned many times not to walk behind the horses, I was on one occasion sent flying through the air by a rear hoof to the chest—an early lesson in being polite to animals that has served me well. (The companion lesson in minding my elders took repeating, but eventually that set in also.) This incident notwithstanding, Twig was a sweetheart, and I enjoyed currying her and feeding her sweet oats as much as I enjoyed riding her.

But if Twig was a sweetheart, Natalie was my sweetheart, arguably my best friend through my middle-school and high-school years. Twig's idea of a joke was to brush off an unwary rider on a low-hanging branch, but Natalie was very gentle and absolutely trustworthy, and I rode her far more often. Later, on visits home from university, I would sometimes bring her apples (Twig had passed away by this point), burying my nose in her neck as she gently slurped the fruit from my outstretched palm. She never forgot me, and I can only hope she didn't worry too much about where I disappeared to.

Forgive my rambling; such are the thoughts triggered by the rediscovery of an old photograph, discolored by age but vivid in memory. I loved these little horses, and I find by the tears and the smile on my face that after all this time, I still do.

[Twig (left) and Natalie]


Thursday, May 19, 2016

A golden blur

When a rainbow trout is hooked, the resulting blur is silver. (Forget any painting you've ever seen of a rainbow trout leaping from the water, arched just so, with an identifiable dry fly hooked at the corner of the mouth. No one has ever seen that static image, even for an instant, in real life. The fish simply thrashes too quickly for the human eye to resolve. I'd like to see Andrew Ellis try that painting, though; he conveys blur, a sense of motion, better than any other painter I'm aware of, though of course his preferred subject matter is birds. But I digress.) If there is enough pink on the fish, the blur partakes of this, resembling the pink foil wrapper on a Hershey's Kiss at Eastertime. But the last fish I caught over the weekend came up as a buttery, golden blur.

The golden blur resolved into this, a beautiful little (about 7 inches) brown trout.

This small fish was a trophy for a couple of reasons. For one thing, brown trout are generally considered more discerning than other trout species; it's been said that not only do they recognize most artificial flies, but they can usually name the patterns, and older fish may know the page numbers in the Cabela's and Orvis catalogues. Furthermore, while this creek is regularly stocked with rainbows, the last stocking of browns was a couple of decades ago, so this was an indisputably wild fish.

Bill Spear has called brown trout "the only sporty German import you'll find for under $50K", and it's true that the first brown trout brought to the States were from the Black Forest, but subsequent shipments included fish from the British Isles as well, so I'll assume some kinship with this little jewel.

A quick family portrait, and he was back on his way...

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Verdigre in May

Jessica and I spent virtually the whole of last weekend within a couple hundred yards of this one-lane bridge, at our favourite campsite on Verdigre Creek. We weren't the only ones sticking close: eastern phoebes were nesting on the girders underneath.

Birds, of course, are part of the attraction here, and they were out in force, but the profusion of dame's rocket made an equally strong impression—it was blooming everywhere we looked.

I've noticed before the abundance of downed trees—with gratitude, too, for fallen trees along the creek are part of what makes it such good habitat for trout—and now we know there's more than wind to thank. The beavers have been hard at work this spring.

Ah yes, trout, one of the main reasons we come here. The fishing was good but challenging, as usual; with all the in-stream vegetation, high-sticking nymphs and swinging streamers tends to work best here.


Scenes from camp and creek:

[Photos by Mark & Jessica, mostly Jessica]