I spent this past weekend at the Nebraska Falconers' Association field meet in the Nebraska Sandhills. A few of us drove up from Lincoln and Grand Island on Saturday, through "Little Poland". This area, including the towns of Farwell, Ashton, and Loup City along Highway 92, was originally settled by Polish immigrants, as one can confirm by reading the mailboxes along the road or by checking the local telephone listings. It's a beautiful area, and I can only assume that it reminded the communities' founders of the old country.
We hawked rabbits in the switchgrass-covered hills surrounding Davis Creek Reservoir, one of my favorite spots for its abundant game and stunning scenery. Mike Cox's Harris' hawk, Hannibal, chased a cottontail behind some cedars; we missed seeing the end of the flight but heard the squeal signifying success. Mike tried for a second rabbit, but Hannibal shut down after catching a large vole.
My redtail, Stekoa, also took a cottontail. Most of our bunnies are found by my second-year dachshund, Maxine, but this time her younger "sibling" Anya hit a hot scent, yipped, and started running up a game trail; seconds later, Stekoa launched in that direction, did a nice "tipover" (as opposed to a wingover) into the switchgrass, and bound to the rabbit. Score an assist for the puppy!
Saturday morning was devoted to longwinging. Eric & Anita Johnson guided us to a field where prairie chickens are known to feed in the morning, and after a bit of waiting the birds appeared. Jim Ingram's peregrine, Lucy, took a nice pitch and stooped hard into the flock after we ran in to flush. We couldn't tell if she made contact with any of the "ironbacks"—these birds can take a hit and still keep going—but if she missed it was close.
[Lucy coming in to the lure: Photo by Mitchell Renteria.]
We also tried to find a slip for Jim's Peruvian aplomado falcon, Penny, but couldn't find any quail. We did find scattered feathers where an avian predator, probably a prairie falcon, had killed a female prairie chicken. Eric noted that only prairie falcons and gyrfalcons are likely to kill chickens this late in the season; I might add great horned owls to that list, but the point remains that winter chickens are tough birds indeed. [Left to right: opposite primary feathers, breast feathers, tail feathers. Note the barring on the tail feathers; a cock's would still have the white tip but otherwise be plain black.]
Later we found other kill sites, including sharp-tailed grouse, bluebird, blue jay, and rabbit. Based on location and other clues, the likeliest predators were another prairie falcon for the sharptail, a merlin for the bluebird, a Cooper's hawk or possibly a sharpshin for the jay, and a coyote for the rabbit. These finds are a vivid reminder that there's a lot of living and dying going on out in God's country, most of it unseen by humans.
We also had a good deer sighting while Jim was off in search of his wayward Brittany:
They came out of a draw, heading straight for us. ("They're flocking this way." I was glad when Mitchell, who took these shots, got the Jurassic Park reference.) We were crouched with the breeze full in our faces, and only the click and whirr of the camera caused them to alter course.
Stekoa flew again Saturday afternoon, taking two rabbits in twenty minutes at an abandoned homestead west of Taylor. He dragged the first one under a rusty satellite dish. To my comment, "Wilderness hawking at its finest," Eric pointed out that cottontails prefer the suburbs anyway. Most of the rabbits I've caught in the Sandhills were found in similar situations, amidst deteriorating buildings, ancient farm equipment, and assorted debris. Shelter is where you find it...
Meanwhile, another party led by Mike Cox and Karl Linderholm flew Harris' hawks at Calamus Reservoir. Both Hannibal and his sister Clarice, flown by Karl, took rabbits there.
On Sunday morning, we flew Eric's hybrid falcon at sharptails. River is a gyr x peregrine cross, but her appearance leans toward the gyrfalcon side—in fact, to my inexpert eye, what she looks like is a saker. She tends to take her time going up, which drives Eric to distraction, but once she gained her pitch we quit sneaking behind the hills and ran in on the grouse. They flushed, River stooped and disappeared behind a hill; we waited for her to remount, but she stayed out of sight, leading us to believe she'd killed one of the sharptails. In fact, she'd missed and flown low to the ground back to our original position; using telemetry, we found her about forty yards from where the flight had started. Again, no grouse in the bag, but a good flight. We also saw a gorgeous white-tailed jackrabbit; the enormous hare ran at least a quarter-mile before disappearing over the horizon, and probably wasn't even breathing hard.
For the rest of the morning and into Sunday afternoon, the quarry failed to cooperate. We were unable to get a slip for Lucy, as the prairie chickens evidently were not feeding on this warm morning. And while Mike and Karl's party had seen bobwhites at Calamus Reservoir on Saturday, we were unable to locate the quail and so Penny went unserved again (unless you count a brief chase on a rabbit).
[Jim & Penny: Photo by Mitchell.]
The wind increased through Sunday afternoon, so Eric & Anita decided against flying River and her brother, Riddick. Mike and Karl having departed for Davis Creek Reservoir and then home, the last bird flown was Stekoa. We found a few rabbits back at the old homestead, but not nearly as many: The combination of Saturday's hunting pressure and Sunday's wind, we believe, put most of them to ground. Stekoa did make a terrific downwind flight on a huge (3 to 4 pound) cottontail; he bound to it and seemed to have it under control, but when I made in, it kicked Stekoa off and eluded my diving grab. Oh, well. Three rabbits in three days is more than enough for us.
Beautiful country, mostly cooperative weather, good opportunities at game, and the company of good friends: All in all, a great weekend!