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.

"Alice's Restaurant Massacree"

Someone had to post this for Thanksgiving...may as well be me.

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Arlo perform this on his "Alice's Restaurant" tour a few years ago. Other highlights included, of course, "City of New Orleans" and a spooky rendition of "House of the Rising Sun".

The historical background on the Massacree is here for anyone who might be interested.

Back later with some falconry...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

photoblogging: snow in the highlands

Driving into western Maryland yesterday, I encountered altitude-effect snow: Snow showers at Sideling Hill, Big Savage Mountain, Meadow Mountain, rain in between. But on the western side of the continental divide, the snow had fallen in earnest.

In Bawlamerese: "Watch out for them deers, hon." Always a good idea, but especially in the snow.

Snow on pine boughs along Garrett Highway.

The Youghiogheny River near Oakland.

Goldenrod, also on the Yock.

The right tool for the job.

Every third or fourth car in the western Maryland mountains, it seems, is a Subaru. If only everyone would drive one... While I had dinner with friends/family in Oakland, darkness fell and the snow started again with a vengeance, swirling around as if a snowglobe had been given a violent shake. Not wanting to get stuck in Oakland—with another 24 hours of snow expected—I declined an offer of lodging and headed back up to I-68 and then I-79. As the weather worsened, hundreds of drivers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania parked along the interstate—not just on the shoulder, but in both lanes; wherever the mood struck them, apparently. Road conditions called for caution, but not for giving up. I carefully picked my way among cars, 18-wheelers, and more than a few Jeeps and eventually reached Washington, PA.

Sleep was bliss.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sign of the times

This doesn't look like the work of an organized movement, but at least someone in Maryland has figured out the equation:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paul G. Churchill, 1945-2008

Today is Veterans' Day, an especially poignant one for me as I am just now starting to come to grips with the loss of my dad, Capt. Paul G. Churchill, USAF, who passed away on Friday.

My dad was a member of the Pershing Rifles military fraternity and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Maryland. He was heavily involved in the Pershing Rifles' acclaimed drill team, and also served as unit chaplain. (Among his other duties, he would occasionally "bless" a ham sandwich for his friend David Skillman, who was widely but incorrectly assumed to be Jewish.) He married his college sweetheart, Jo Ann Grammer, at the University chapel, and I was born in January 1967. Upon his graduation later that year, Dad was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. Subsequent postings included Texas and Indiana, where my brother Greg was born. Then, in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

Vietnam, the Un-War: Where the unable lead the unwilling to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

—unknown graffitist at Tan Son Nhut

War has been described as "long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of terror", and that description would be apt for my dad's tour in Southeast Asia. He endured hot, humid weather; semi-regular rocket attacks; and a brief, accidental visit to an apparent Viet Cong depot (a story I may tell later). Then, of course, there was the separation from his young family.

Much of his time off-duty was spent keeping up contact any way he could. He recorded and mailed cassette tapes as well as letters and postcards. (Many of the latter I still have). Often, after a duty shift, he would wait in line at the comm office for hours to place a five-minute radio-relay telephone call to my mom. There was always someone else on the line, a necessity which made any sort of intimacy difficult, and the connection was not always good. Once, after several requests to "Please repeat, over," an airman at the relay station broke his silence to clarify what had been said: "She said she loves you, sir." Dad said the sentiment lost a lot in translation.

Otherwise, off-duty hours were spent in Saigon; at the officers' club, where a Filipino cover band might give Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Beatles a cruel battering; or just hanging out at the BOQ. Occasionally, there would be parties with the Australian contingent—the Yanks provided the steaks, the Aussies the beer, which represented a welcome change. Normally, the only beer available was Black Label; rumor had it that soldiers at a forward operating base once cheered the downing of a C-7 Caribou because its cargo consisted entirely of Black Label beer.

Sometime in 1970, Dad's idealism was challenged when he was ordered to supervise the loading, without paperwork, of a suspiciously unmarked black plane—his first direct contact with the reality of the secret war in Cambodia. (This would have been before the overt Cambodian Incursion, and probably represented either a ground component to the "secret war" or a preliminary operation by special-ops forces in advance of the Incursion.) His cynicism increased when he had to ship home the body of a friend killed in combat.

Dad was proud of his military service, but considered his time in Vietnam a wasted year. I'm not so sure about that. The war itself may have been a mistake, but I believe his essential decency made him a force for good and an ambassador for the American people. At a time when many servicemen treated Vietnamese people with suspicion and contempt, and ethnic slurs were applied to enemies and allies alike, Dad saw himself as a guest in Vietnam and treated its citizens accordingly. He and some friends stocked a refrigerator in the operations office with Coca-Cola and put up a sign: "Cokes 25 cents, or 10 dong for our Vietnamese friends." (I may have the conversion backwards; it might have been 10 cents and 25 dong.) This simple gesture earned him the respect and friendship of the Vietnamese civilians working there, and set an example for the men of his command.

For a recent birthday, our family gave Dad a Pendleton blanket entitled "Grateful Nation" in recognition of his service to country. In my mind, this includes not just his time in the Air Force (even after Vietnam, he kept his name on the rolls of the inactive reserves in case he was needed in uniform once again) but also his subsequent career as a teacher and his life as a true family man. As my brother and I today began the long and difficult task of sorting through his belongings—a task that could take months, as Dad was both a collector and a packrat; I once told him that when I thought about clearing out his house, I prayed I would go first—this was one of the first items I secured. Another: the Akubra hat with RAAF insignia given to Dad by an Australian officer in Vietnam in a gesture of friendship and solidarity.

If you have the chance, or can make a chance, thank a veteran today. Or anytime. I'll likely be on hiatus a few more days at least, but I'll get back online when I can. Peace to all.

Update: More on Dad from The Baker Street Blog, The Baltimore Sun, and The Carroll County Times.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The eagle says it all in this cartoon by Bob Englehart at the Hartford Courant. Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama, and to us all.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Laying low

Here's to them that shoot and miss.

—old falconer's toast

Looks like another day for football and politics: Stekoa caught a rabbit yesterday, and I took the opportunity to feed him up and spend the day mostly indoors. The gun season for pheasant and quail opened last weekend, but hunter success was relatively low due to a late harvest—many gamebirds are still in standing corn and soybean fields—and with sunshine and temps in the 70s expected this weekend, I suspect many of the fair-weather shooters will be in the field for another try.

I should point out that it's specifically the fair-weather shooters I fear. Any bird-hunter still at it in December or January is obviously dedicated, probably knows what he or she is shooting at, and hopefully has enough ecological sense not to see hawks as a threat to gamebird populations. But the eighty to ninety percent of small-game permit holders who venture afield only in the early season make me fear not just for Stekoa's safety but also for my own. Hunter-safety education has reduced the number of fools who shoot at movement or even sound without positively identifying their targets, but it hasn't eliminated them. My caution, not to say paranoia, was reinforced when a pheasant hunter got Dick Cheneyed just last weekend near Valparaiso. And hawks always catch hell during the early season, as evidenced by surging admissions at Raptor Recovery Nebraska (which obviously account for only a small percentage of the hawks shot).

This time of year, I'll hunt early on a weekday, but no amount of blaze orange will convince me to risk a beautiful Saturday like this. So:

  • Air Force at Army. Guess I'll root for Air Force, though my dad was ROTC, not Academy, and couldn't possibly care less about football, anyway.... Hmmm, maybe I'll watch Kansas vs. Kansas State instead.
  • Florida vs. Georgia, which remains the world's largest outdoor cocktail party no matter what SEC officials may say or do. Go Dogs!
  • Tennessee at South Carolina, a chance for Vols fans everywhere to revile Steve Spurrier.
  • Nebraska at Oklahoma, a slightly-tarnished but still classic rivalry. Go Big Red!

Enjoy the weekend, and be safe.

Three days

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
Don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
And the loser now will be later to win...
For the times they are a-changin'