Saturday, April 5, 2014

Last year's garden

Jessica kindly let me use some of her photos from last year's garden, because I usually need a reminder just about now.

Black and white in colour

Going through old photo files; I didn't know what to do with either of these at the time, but now it seems obvious they belong together. Bird by me, tree by Jessa.

Monday, March 24, 2014

new NFA website

For some months now, the Nebraska Falconers' Association website has been out of commission. The new NFA site is now up and running at For the moment, the site is still under development; new pages and new content will be coming online as time allows. This will include information for prospective apprentices and non-resident falconers, links to articles from Flatwater Falconry, and more.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

NFA mini-meet, February '12

NFA secretary/treasurer Donna Vorce ended up not taking a hawk this year, so she offered some of her fields for a late-season bunny-hawking gathering. This was designated a mini-meet because it wasn't on the official calendar—the official meet was last month, and I was down with the flu—but it had a better turnout that some of the official field meets, with three hawks (all redtails) and about a dozen people in attendance. We met at a cafe in the small town of Bruning, socialized a bit over a good breakfast, and then hit the field in the late morning.

[Photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill]

Stekoa was first up and flew actively, keeping always ahead of the field and watching alertly, but owing perhaps to a stiff wind, no quarry was spotted. I finally called him down, but it took a few tries: one of the items in my tidbit bag was a rabbit kidney surrounded in soft white fat, and Stekoa's jesses twice slipped through my greasy fingers as he snatched a tidbit and bated off the fist. While I was waiting him out, he caught a deer mouse in a cedar tree. Finally, on the third attempt, I called him down and got him tethered, and to my surprise he stood the fist well on the hike back to the car.

[Photo by Pat Stull]

We relocated to a line of riparian woods along Dry Sandy Creek, where Rick Fariz, a recent transplant from Florida, took his turn. His intermewed passage female, Melissa, is a squirrel-hawking veteran, and chased both bushytails and cottontails before catching one of the latter flushed from the woods out into a field of tallgrass.

[Photos by Pat Stull]

Dry Sandy, incidentally, lived up to its name, with not a drop of water and a deep bed of sand and fine gravel. Flotsam hanging on the low branches of the trees proved that it at least occasionally runs deep. In the meantime, though, it was by far the easiest route back to the vehicles.

[Photo by Pat Stull]

 [Photo by Jessica Farrell-Churchill]

We again moved a short distance to fly Amanda Kaufman Escobedo's passage tiercel, Storm. He got one good flight at a rabbit, but the only other game flushed was a covey of quail. Stormy chases bunnies with enthusiasm, but so far hasn't shown much interest in birds. Amanda called him down soon afterward, as this had been his longest hunt to date, and she didn't want to push him too far.

[Photo by Pat Stull]

Finally, we moved back to the section of Dry Sandy Creek that we had hunted with Melissa, and got Stekoa back out. Amanda flushed a rabbit that ended up running along the edge of the creek bank, almost directly under Stekoa; when he hit it, the two of them tumbled down the bank to the sandy bed. Stekoa held on just long enough for me to get hold of the rabbit, then jumped clear, evidently ready to keep hunting.

Not too much later, we flushed a rabbit out in the field adjacent to the woods, and Stekoa bound to it. Whether he let it go or it just struggled free, it ran off just before I could grab it. (I'll take the error on that one, and credit him with two bunnies.) Stekoa's the sort of hawk who would rather hunt than eat, and he still wasn't ready to call it quits, so we continued on a bit longer; after catching another deer mouse, he condescended to accept an offered rabbit leg, and we called it a day.

Other raptors spotted throughout the day: An immature Cooper's hawk flew alongside Jessa and me as we left Lincoln, giving us an extended look and again whetting my appetite for a small accipiter. (I still miss my passage sharpie, Talkeetna.) Numerous redtails were spotted on the way, and two bald eagles (a juvenile and an adult) passed overhead, apparently following the Blue River south of Milford. A couple more baldies were seen high overhead while we were hawking, and several short-eared owls flushed silently from the cedars as we searched for rabbits during Stekoa's first outing.

[Photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill]

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Stick the landing

Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) are so agile that they've lent their generic name to a rarely-used word—oreamnosis—for leaping adroitly, whether that be physical leaping or metaphorical leaping, as from idea to idea. (For a quadruped whose preferred habitat includes sheer cliffs, it pays to be sure-footed.) But clearly their Capra cousins are no slouch, either.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Home sweet hole

One of the nice things about hawking, as any falconer will attest, is simply that it gets one out and about, and many of its rewards come in the form of serendipitous finds. One day earlier this winter I happened to park in a new spot at one of my frequently-visited hunting grounds and when, at the end of the day, I field-dressed the rabbit my hawk had caught, I noticed a hole in the ground surrounded for several feet in every direction by yellowed snow and delicate canine tracks: signs that a fox had been using that burrow quite actively. The gutpile I left that day was gone by the following afternoon, and I've left several subsequent offerings to the same fox.

A few days ago, while searching for rabbits in a new area, I found another hole, this one larger and marked with coyote tracks. This was in a narrow fringe of riparian woods; the "front" entrance was just a few steps into the woods from a cornfield.

The "back" entrance, significantly tighter and better hidden, overlooked a (currently dry) creek down a relatively steep bank.


I wouldn't be at all surprised if this burrow is used for denning this spring. Situated at least a quarter-mile (and probably farther) from human habitation, in edge habitat, with access to water, this is essentially a textbook den location.

God bless the corners of this house
And be the lintel blest
And bless the hearth and bless the board
And bless each place of rest...

—a traditional Irish blessing

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fishing with the Huangs

In the 19th century, Francis Henry Salvin and Gage Earle Freeman wrote Falconry: Its Claims, History, and Practice, a book which is perhaps most memorable for its addendum, subtitled To which are added remarks on training the Otter and Cormorant, by Capt. Salvin. It's always struck me as a very, well, 19th-century mishmash; it's hard to imagine a contemporary how-to book on falconry devoting space to such esoterica.

On the other hand, that hasn't prevented me from idly daydreaming about training double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritusfor fishing. (Yes, they're protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and there are no provisions I'm aware of for possession of live cormorants, but on the other hand they're sometimes killed under depredation permit when they make themselves at home on fish farms. It seems like something could easily be worked out.)

Here's a video from the BBC showing how it's done in southern China. (These are probably great cormorants, P. garbo.) The narrator's claim that "the birds are, in effect, slaves" is overstated, but otherwise the video is excellent. The underwater sequences make the parallel to falconry less far-fetched than I once supposed, and have me daydreaming again.

Come on, FWS, what do you say?...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tracing of sparrow

We had a dusting of snow last week, one of the small things for which both Stekoa and I are thankful. Another (for me, at least) is the return of our little flock of juncos, and the tracks they leave by the back porch.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All wet

The Nebraska Falconers' Association autumn field meet was this past weekend, but Jessica and I missed most of it, rolling in well after dark on Saturday. What's more, we (inadvertently) left the camera at home, so we missed the opportunity to document what little hawking remained on Sunday morning.

The weekend, already somewhat odd, came to a bizzare close with Stekoa's turn. We flew in a small woodlot right across the road from the Schneidereits' little guest house; half an hour earlier, Daniel Parker's redtail had caught a rabbit (her first, although she had previously taken a fox squirrel and, improbably, a bluebird in flight!) in the same area. Evidently that was the only one above ground on this gusty day, for a half-dozen beaters and two dogs produced no other bunnies from the trees, and Stekoa seemed reluctant to follow us across the open, windswept landscape to another spot. So we worked an adjacent cattail marsh, releasing huge plumes of cattail fluff with every move, while Stekoa watched from the edge of the woods. He made several flights on voles, finally catching a large one and carrying it back to a sturdy limb.

Having eaten the vole, he watched us for a few moments, then launched from his perch overhead into a long slanting attack on unseen quarry, disappearing in the vicinity of a structure marked by two or three rusted steel arches which from a distance I took to be the framework of a now-defunct greenhouse. When I ran over, I found not a greenhouse but a cistern of stagnant water, perhaps thirty feet across and who knows how deep; the waterline was at least eight feet down the sheer concrete walls, and Stekoa floated amidst a carpet of duckweed which covered nearly the entire surface, while a vole ran around the rim just above waterline.

It was immediately apparent what had happened: the vole was evidently light enough to tread on the duckweed, which to Stekoa must have looked like a nice even lawn; expecting to pound the vole into the turf, he instead plunged into the chilly water. He was thoroughly soaked, his wet flight feathers little more than quillls incapable of generating lift, and coated liberally with tiny leaflets of duckweed.

I began to strip down, prepared to go in after the hawk, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and the party quickly began engineering a better solution. Several too-short limbs were brought over and discarded before someone fetched what was almost a tree in its own right; several of us lowered it down to Stekoa, he grabbed on, and we raised him up until I was able to coax him to the fist. While someone gathered up the gear and clothing I had left next to the cistern, another friend and I hurried over to the guesthouse and hosed Stekoa off, trading clean water for stagnant and rendering him somewhat less green.

I tried to feed Stekoa, but whether from shock or hypothermia, he was unable to balance well on the fist, so I returned him to his travel box, started the car and put on the heater; by the time we had packed and loaded, the interior was like a sauna. We stopped half an hour down the road to find him still quite wet but nicely recovered and with a good appetite; upon returning home, I moved his box in the house so he could dry thoroughly overnight. Fully recovered, I hope to fly him again tomorrow afternoon.

(Thanks to everyone involved in Stekoa's rescue—I know Donna, Eric & Anita, Daniel, and Rick all had a hand in it; if I've missed anyone, I hope the omission will be attributed to the chaos of the moment and my focus on Stekoa's immediate welfare.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Le Chanson de l'Emerillon"

A Sunday morning in the Farrell-Churchill household. I'm washing up the dishes, Jessica is drinking coffee from Café du Monde, and she starts humming a French tune, one to which most Americans know only the first line: "Alouette, gentille alouette..."

"That's a hawking song, you know."

"Really? What does it mean?"

"Well, alouette means lark..."


"...and it's sort of a love song by the merlin to its traditional quarry."

"I don't like where this is going."

J'ai passé six années de français, mais j'ai oublié le plupart. [I took six years of French, but I've forgotten most of it. I keep this one sentence handy just in case.] This much, however, I can manage.

Le Chanson de l'Emerillon, as presented in John Loft's A Merlin For Me

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai la tête,
Ah! la tête, ah! la tête,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai le bec,
Ah! le bec, ah! le bec,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai les ailes,
Ah! les ailes, ah! les ailes,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Translated (for accuracy, not for meter):

The Song of the Merlin

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your head,
Ah! your head, ah! your head,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your beak,
Ah! your beak, ah! your beak,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your wings,
Ah! your wings, ah! your wings,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

(For meter, I'd switch up the first lines to read:

I will pluck you, oh yes I will pluck you,
I will pluck you, pretty little lark.

Any falconer who's flown small hawks at birds, incidentally, will recognize the validity of the head-beak-wings sequence.)

Jessica again: "You're going to teach that to our kids, aren't you?"

"Sure, why not?"

"That's a terrible song!"

"Hey, don't blame me; you're the one who's part French."

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Thanks to a late moult and a late autumn, we're not hunting yet, but I have started the process of reclaiming Stekoa, and that includes some weathering time out of the mews.

These last few days, that means utilising my anniversary present from Jess, a new block made by Daniel Parker from northeast Nebraska. Daniel is a first-year apprentice, but already making fine block perches, several of which have been purchased by falconers in the U.K. This one in black walnut is, I believe, his sixth block, and I'm very pleased to have it. (Thank you, Jessa!) If anyone reading this is in the market, I'll be glad to put you in touch.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A homecoming

"But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs."

"Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!" He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. "Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London."

—"His Last Bow"

No "leisured ease" for me, no farm on the South Downs, and it's doubtful I'd ever have the patience for such observations as Mr. Holmes would make, but I'm proud to share this distinction with him, however tenuous my claim may be: I am now a beekeeper.

Jessica has a certain fear of bees, but nevertheless acquiesced to my purchase of an empty hive this spring. Since then, it had remained empty: lacking either the funds or the time to acquire bees from another beekeeper or a pest-removals firm, we took a passive "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" approach. And this past Tuesday, a swarm of bees found us.

[These mobile-phone videos won't win any awards for clarity, but should suffice to give an idea of the activity level at the hive.]





Most people think of "a swarm of bees" as inherently aggressive, but in fact swarming bees are pretty mellow. As Jess said, "Of course they're happy—they're house-hunting!" After two days of intense activity, the hive seems to have settled down to a steady coming and going, and we're looking forward to being their landlords. Come next year, if all goes well, we'll be harvesting plenty of very local honey for our tea.

[They may be blurry bees, but they're our blurry bees!]

UPDATE: Well, they were our blurry bees. A few weeks after they arrived, activity at the hive dwindled and then ceased, the bees apparently having decamped. Easy come, easy go; we'll try again in the spring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The gratitude of every home...

Why do I say all this? Not, assuredly, to boast; not, assuredly, to give the slightest countenance to complacency. The dangers we face are still enormous, but so are our advantages and resources. I recount them because the people have a right to know that there are solid grounds for the confidence which we feel, and that we have good reason to believe ourselves capable, as I said in a very dark hour two months ago, of continuing the war if necessary alone, if necessary for years.

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

—Winston Churchill, 20 August 1940

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sphinx moth

Occasionally, while putting a new post together, I run across old material that never made it to the blog.This is a sphinx moth we found in the front yard while gardening last summer.

Sphinx moths are often called "hummingbird moths"—they're roughly the same size and feed in a similar manner, sipping nectar from flowers while hovering, and so are sometimes mistaken for hummers—but up close, this one reminds me of an owl.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More Sandhills pics

Again, photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill

Monday, August 12, 2013

The water that runs deep enough to actually paddle

Well, Jessica finally got her river trip. Almost exactly a month after our ill-fated attempt at the Platte River, we joined Linda Cox and her company of friends and family on the Niobrara River. [Previous trips here and here.] A good time was had by all, which is to say there's not much of a story this time 'round. Jessica had the camera this time, at least until the battery went flat, so here are a few shots from our trip.


Home sweet home on the banks of Minnechaduza Creek.

In camp: there's a fungus among us.

Prairie above Fort Falls.

Fort Falls proper

Clear, cold water from Fort Falls emptying into the Niobrara, running muddy after a couple of thunderstorms.

Grasses and wapato (arrowhead) at river's edge.

Berry Bridge and Berry Falls.

Minor (unnamed?) waterfall, cold and good to drink.

Two views of Smith Falls Bridge, which was originally located many miles downstream near Verdigre, Nebraska. Built in 1910, it spanned the mouth of Verdigre Creek, which empties into the Niobrara. It was disassembled in 1917 and then rebuilt, again near Verdigre, in 1922. The bridge was decommissioned and again disassembled in 1993. In 1995, it was moved to Smith Falls SRA and reassembled, although narrowed from the original 15 feet intended for vehicular traffic to 10 for strictly pedestrian use.

Wet meadow near Smith Falls.

Creek below Smith Falls.