Thursday, October 20, 2016

Aggravation, fatigue, and beauty

From the beginning, the migration of wild things fascinated me. I watched bats in the summer streetlights, diving and twisting for mosquitoes, and wondered where they went after winter killed the insects. Crows and geese would come from nowhere to gather, in the spring and fall...and they spoke to me as surely as the stars and the magnetism of the earth spoke to them. They drew me near and I watched them, never knowing exactly why I was watching, but knowing that their wildness was a vital element of life.

—Dan O'Brien, The Rites of Autumn

Dachshunds are high-strung little dogs. They're also...let's just say, not entirely reliable as to housebreaking. I say this with all due affection—I live, by choice, with two of them—but these shortcomings must be admitted. So when they start barking early in the morning, I generally assume they need to go out right away. I might not always be happy about getting out of bed to let them out, but I do it, and I usually manage to be grateful: at least they let me know, right? And it's not so bad if I needed to get up soon anyway.

But gratitude is hard to muster when it's 3:30 in the damn morning.

Bleary-eyed and muttering under my breath so as not to wake Jessica, I stumbled from the bedroom to the kitchen to let the hounds from hell into the back yard. Where, to my consternation, they persisted in barking. Fantastic, now they're going to wake the neighbours. More muttering.

I stepped out to yell at Maxine and Anya, sotto voce so as not to aggravate the neighbours further. I hadn't felt overly warm, but suddenly the cool air on my skin was a blessed relief. And before I could say anything, I heard more barking. Distant. Overhead. And gratitude started seeping back.

I called the dogs in, quietly, and to my relief they came trooping back toward the house—not immediately, of course—they're half-feral, really, or at least half-Farrell—but within a minute or two. I stayed on the back steps for another couple of minutes, breathing in the cool night air, listening to the barking of snow geese, feeling connected to the world again, glad to be in the midst of another migration even if I'm going nowhere.

Other migration posts:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Make mine a lovely Harp

Overheard by someone sitting near me at McCourt's before they shut down:

"I don't really like Guinness. I honestly wish I did. I mean, to be Irish, even half-Irish by marriage, and not like t' black stuff—well, it's a bit of a social handicap, innit? But t' truth is, if you give me t' choice between a Guinness and a pint o' horse piss—well, I'm goin' t' have t' seriously consider t' age and condition of t' horse."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Platte River Special

[Missouri, Otoe, and Ponca Indians: original Nebraskans. Art by Karl Bodmer, sourced from Wikipedia.]

My adopted homeland derives its name from Niobrathka, an Otoe-Missouria word meaning "flat water", in reference to what French trappers later named the Platte River. This is a braided river, famously described by settlers as "an inch deep and a mile wide". Though its flow has now been much reduced, over the millennia the river has deposited countless tons of former Rocky Mountains rock throughout the Platte Valley in the form of sand, and sand mining on various scales remains an important industry in the region.

[Platte River Valley as seen from Platte River State Park, between Lincoln and Omaha, with sand-mining operation visible just beyond the river, at right.]

Far to the west, hundreds of miles upriver in central Wyoming, is a famous stretch of the North Platte River known as the "Miracle Mile". Actually about five and a half miles long, it is a tailwater, drawing cold water from the depths of Seminoe Reservoir via Kortes Dam, and eventually emptying into Pathfinder Reservoir, named for John C. Frémont. The cold water supports cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout, and this fishery spawned a fly known as the Platte River Special.

The PRS is a classic streamer; the exact recipe varies wildly from one tier to the next, but generally incorporates gold tinsel, yellow feathers, and red in one form or another. This colour scheme suggests, to my eyes at least, a tiny brown trout, but with streamers (even more than other flies) presentation is probably more important than imitation: as long as it moves like a baitfish, predatory fish will take an interest.

[Platte River Special on driftwood.]

So, back downstream to Nebraska, where the Platte is far too warm for trout, and to all that sand. Just west of the city of Fremont (also named for The Pathfinder) is Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area, a collection of abandoned sandpits now used for boating and fishing. Fishing the PRS here, a stone's throw from the Platte, seems appropriate even if it is far from its place of origin. And it works: I can guarantee this black crappie has never seen a brown trout, fry or otherwise, but it clearly viewed the PRS as a fish of some kind, and did not hesitate to take it.

More surprising were the small sunfish (bluegills, greens, and hybrids) that also went for the streamer. Unlike crappie, these little guys aren't typically thought of as piscivorous, but evidently they're willing to give it a go.

I haven't yet fished the Platte River Special in the Platte proper, but this will do for now in terms of validation. I hereby designate the PRS as a "native Nebraskan" fly. (Also any imitation of the Platte River caddisfly.)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The frog factory

Cowles Lake near Venice, Nebraska, is commonly known as "the trout lake" because it is seasonally stocked with rainbows, but it's also a good spot for black crappie, dragonflies, and amphibians.

American toads only occur in a couple of eastern counties within Nebraska, and this lake is the most reliable spot I know for them.

Plains leopard frogs occur here in decent numbers, and are easily recognised by their brown colouration. (Northern leopard frogs are patterned similarly, but in green.)

By far the most conspicuous, however, are bullfrogs.

[All photos by Jessica, with the exception of the first leopard frog by me, and this one by Ellie of Jess holding a developing bullfrog.]

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Here be dragons

An assortment of dragonflies, all from Douglas and Sarpy Counties, most by Jessa. [UPDATED with new photos 7 August.]

Halloween pennant. The new dragonfly in town? According to the University of Nebraska State Museum, "it is perhaps a recent invader, since there are no records prior to the 1990s except for a large number collected in Cass County in 1914."

Blue dasher. This lowered-wing posture is typical.

Eastern pondhawk, male.

Eastern pondhawk, female.

Pondhawk male and female together. Very much so. This, the second phase of mating, is known as the "wheel position".

Eastern amberwing. Not just small in the photo; they're small in real life as well.

Widow skimmer, eating a ladybird beetle in the first shot.

Damselfly (please don't ask which).

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 fly-fishing 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: