Thursday, November 27, 2008

Right enough for chickens

Circumstances made me miss both the NFA field meet three weeks ago and the NAFA field meet underway right now, but I did get to spend the last few days hawking with Art Graves. He moved to the Nebraska Sandhills nineteen years ago for the express purpose of hawking grouse, specifically greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Chickens are far more common than sharps where Art lives, and so make up the majority of his flights. He flies gyr x peregrine tiercels, and maintains very high standards for himself and his birds. For Art, a good flight means not just a high pitch (a thousand feet or so) and a vertical stoop ending in an explosion of grouse feathers, but his hawk attaining that pitch by pumping all the way up, without missing a single wingbeat. His current bird, Jimi, has already killed several prairie-chickens this year, but lately has displayed a tendency to set his wings on occasion; this, along with a reduced pitch, is slowly driving Art mad. As I said, he maintains very high standards.

We set out early yesterday to find prairie-chickens. They roost and loiter in grassy cover, but often feed in cropland, so Art concentrates on pivot-irrigated fields—mostly corn in this area, but occasionally soybeans or wheat—where grouse congregate in the mornings and evenings to feed. (Grouse-hawking takes a lot of space. Art is a bit of a homebody for a grouse hawker, rarely venturing away from his local hawking grounds even for a field meet. He estimates that he has access to about 40,000 acres, which he scouts on a regular basis; even so, he occasionally has trouble finding "flyable" birds.) Cruising past a recently-harvested cornfield in his big Toyota pickup just after sunrise, Art caught a glimpse of what might have been a bird hunkered down in the stubble. Easing to a stop in the road, he sighted down the rows with a Nikon spotting scope and confirmed it was a not a pheasant (best avoided because of pheasants' tendency to put back in after the flush, thereby lowering a gamehawk's pitch over time) but a prairie-chicken. He tossed out a blaze-orange hat to mark the spot, put the Toyota in reverse, and backed up several hundred yards to a low spot in the road where we could put on Jimi's telemetry transmitter, unhood him and release him without flushing the chicken prematurely.

Once unhooded, Jimi roused and quickly left the fist, flying in a businesslike manner in the cold morning air. (Even a half-Arctic hawk is adversely affected by warm weather.) He usually follows Art's truck well, a big plus when there's a lot of ground to cover between the release point and the quarry, so Art jumped back into the driver's seat and drove off-road until we were even with the hat. Getting out and looking up to find Jimi before we walked in for the flush, we saw only empty sky. Art pulled out the telemetry receiver, hoping it would reveal Jimi as just a speck directly overhead, but instead the signal was on the horizon in the direction we'd come from. After a few minutes, Jimi came skimming in low, apparently having chased a flock of pigeons or some other "check" he'd spotted while we were taking off in the Toyota. He landed expectantly in the stubble and waited for Art to produce some food. Instead, a frustrated Art presented an ungarnished fist and announced, "We're doing this again."

With Jimi again hooded and secured in the back of the truck, we set out for one of Art's most reliable spots, which he calls "the beanfield" despite the fact that it's been planted in corn for almost fifteen years. A few chickens were flying into the field as we arrived, but driving into the field, we spotted trouble in several forms. A dozen or more chickens were perched in the top of a tall cottonwood nearby; these will often draw the hawk's attention at the outset, but they fly off as soon as the hawk takes to the air, resulting in a long, fruitless and possibly hazardous tailchase. A few more chickens flushed from the corn stubble as we drove, but flew directly uphill and put in dangerously close to a fence. Finally, Art spotted a prairie falcon perched atop a pole on the near horizon. Wild prairie falcons are magnificent birds, and Art has an appreciation for them of course, but they are also a nemesis of sorts since they distract his hawks from their intended quarry; just the previous evening, we had watched Jimi expend most of his energy in a long chase across the sky to engage a prairie in a bit of aerial dogfighting before coming back (at a lower pitch) for a flock of chickens that were no longer there. Not again—we left the beanfield in search of another, more feasible slip.

We found one going down a narrow, rutted dirt track through grassland. Several chickens flushed as we turned in, rocking side to side in their distinctive pattern of quick wingbeats alternating with a brief glide. They flew more or less parallel to the track, and finally put in just on the far side of a round-topped hill about a quarter-mile away. This time, after releasing Jimi, Art stood on the running board of the Toyota to keep an eye on him as I drove toward the birds, hoping not to bounce Art off the truck.

When we eased to a stop and ran at a crouch to the top of the round hill, Jimi was directly overhead, and although he had briefly set his wings he was once again pumping his way upward; Art seemed almost satisfied with the situation. Then, just before we could crest the hill and flush the flock we had seen put in, a single prairie-chicken flushed wide from the slope below and to our right. Jimi folded and stooped, and despite the imperfect positioning managed to catch up to the fleeing chicken and deliver an audible hit.

For the benefit of those who have not seen them in action, I should point out that prairie grouse, especially prairie-chickens, are incredibly tough birds, infrequently brought to bag; with their armor-plated carapace (rap with your knuckles on a prairie-chicken's back and you'll encounter what amounts to a turtle shell covered in loose feathers) and will to survive, they can absorb a hard hit from a stooping falcon, bounce off the ground, and still keep flying strong—in falconer's parlance, they "take a lot of killing". So we weren't surprised to see this flight devolve into a long tailchase, which usually isn't successful even with the speed of a gyr hybrid. But then Art saw, through his binoculars, Jimi pitch up again and slam downward.

Art was concerned about where the flight had ended up, so we quickly jumped into the Toyota and drove almost recklessly to that general area: a barbed-wire fence paralleled a section road under a string of power poles, one of which turned out to have a ferruginous hawk perched on top. Inexplicably but fortunately, the ferrug either hadn't seen the conclusion of the flight or hadn't bothered to take advantage of the situation, and lumbered off as we drove up. A brief search with telemetry guided us to Jimi pluming the dead chicken amidst grass and sage in the roadside ditch, just a foot or so from the barbed wire. The absence of feathers on the wire, and an abundance of them on the slope above the ditch, indicated that Jimi had pounded the chicken into the ground just as it cleared the fence—a lucky thing, as the fence could easily have killed them both. Further examination showed how Jimi had been able to catch up to the grouse: the initial hit had taken most of the secondary feathers out of its right wing, leaving it under-powered and vulnerable.

For Art, it was an imperfect flight: Jimi could have been higher, shouldn't have set his wings, might have been able to kill one outright on the initial stoop had we been able to get a perfect flush beneath him. But it was good enough to kill a chicken in decent if not picture-perfect style; even more importantly, what could have been a tragic aftermath to the tailchase was averted. Given the number of variables and complications involved in grouse hawking—including (to list just a few) the hawk's weight and condition, both physical and mental; the temperature; wind speed and direction; cloud ceiling; geographic and temporal distribution of feeding and roosting sites for grouse, not to mention the mobility of the grouse themselves; presence or absence of stationary hazards like power lines and fences, as well as mobile ones like prairie falcons and eagles—it's too much to expect that any day's hunt will be perfect. If things didn't go perfectly yesterday, at least they went right enough.

And to the victor go the spoils.

1 comment:

mdmnm said...

Great photos and great account!