Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NFA field meet, November '09

Some notes and photos from the recent Nebraska Falconers' Association field meet in Burwell:

The meet started (for the early risers among us, anyway) in the pre-dawn quiet Saturday morning. We drove to a shortgrass prairie hillside where, as Eric Johnson advised us, sharp-tailed grouse lek in the spring and roost at almost any time of year. He pointed to the next ridge over and said that, due to subtle habitat differences, greater prairie-chickens were to be found there instead. (Rosehips on this hill for the sharps, a favored grass on the next ridge for the chickens.) Eric unhooded his gyr x peregrine hybrid, River, and after a short pause atop the truck, she took to the air.

[River's pre-flight routine]

Once she'd attained her pitch—five hundred feet or so this morning; Eric would prefer higher but River favors her gyrfalcon side and doesn't need much height to generate speed and power—Eric and I ran in for the flush, accompanied by Gunner, Eric's English setter. River stooped and hit a grouse, then stooped again after her pitch-up. We both agreed it had been a fatal hit, and found her on her kill under a lone cedar tree not too far from where the flight had begun. It turned out to be a prairie-chicken after all; the self-imposed segregation of sharps and chickens is incomplete, and hybrids are not uncommonly found.

[River and her chicken]

[Hero shot]

[Gunner cools off in a stock tank]

We flew bunny hawks in the afternoon. I had really been looking forward to an "easy" rabbit hunt in the Sandhills, where the cover tends to be more sparse than it is back home. What I got was a two-hour ordeal (maybe three) in heavy cover at Calamus Reservoir, as Stekoa followed cottontails running alternately through hillside cedars growing as dense as any southern Appalachian "rhododendron hell", impenetrable willow thickets growing at the edge of the lake, and enormous piles of driftwood bleached to silver by the relentless prairie sun. I would have gladly abandoned the hunt, but I had little hope of calling Stekoa down while he was seeing rabbits, and anyway Maxine and Anya were working so hard in the heat that they made me feel ashamed for even thinking of quitting. The crowd of beaters and onlookers was repeatedly split as we traversed the area, and eventually most of them set off to fly other hawks in a more congenial setting. Finally, after everyone but Donna Vorce had departed, Stekoa was induced to leave the cedar hell for a more open area of grassland dotted with individual cedars, adjacent to a small cattail marsh, and within a few minutes he had his rabbit.

[Wind circles on the beach at Calamus]

Karl Linderholm caught a rabbit with his Harris' hawk, Clarice, and first-year apprentice Nick Morris and his redtail took their first rabbit together. Scott Backlund bravely flew a new passage redtail, trapped just 18 days earlier, with a crowd of about twenty people in attendance. Surprisingly, only a single bunny was flushed for her, but she handled herself well and ought to be as steady a hawk as one could wish for. No rabbits were flushed for Clarice's brother Hannibal, flown by Bob Noble, and after three voles Bob decided to call it a day.


[Karl and Clarice with her rabbit]

Sunday was another early morning, this time with Anita Johnson and her hybrid tiercel, Riddick. Riddick is River's brother, but he seems more peregrine than gyr—when he was at about six hundred feet, another longwinger in the party commented on his nice pitch, to which Anita responded bluntly, "That's shit; wait 'til he gets there." "There" was something like eleven or twelve hundred feet, and when Riddick came down those of us who had lost visual contact were able to find him again by the ripping sound made by the air rushing through his wings. He hit a prairie-chicken and disappeared over a hill, but despite the cloud of feathers that went drifting over Eric and Karl, both Anita and I knew that the chicken would keep going and Riddick would soon be back. He did return, and once again mounted into the sky, but a wild prairie falcon came in and crabbed with him; by the time that interaction was over, Riddick was spent and Anita called him in to the lure.

[Riddick in morning light]

The meet was more or less over by breakfast, except for a small party of us who adjourned to Davis Creek Reservoir for a last bit of bunny hawking. The hills above the lake, with their sandy soil, are characterized by healthy cottontail populations, large stands of densely-growing switchgrass, and an abundance of holes the rabbits can use for escape cover when the switchgrass isn't enough. But eventually both hawks flown, Clarice and Stekoa, caught bunnies and we all headed for home.

[No longer with us: This church near Davis Creek, photographed last winter, has since fallen down. A lot has changed since last year...]

1 comment:

Donna said...

Lovely article and photos Mark. Thank you. Donna